Forget Boyhood, Tully, and Eighth Grade. Millennial parents know that 2008’s Step Brothers, starring Will Ferrell, will forever embody the true, terrifying spirit of modern parenthood.
At first glance, Step Brothers didn’t look much different from Ferrell’s standard 2000s fare, like Old School and Talladega Nights. Step Brothers, directed by Judd Apatow, was wedged in with his other goofball comedies and received lukewarm reviews (the New York Times creepily invoked the Oedipal castration complex because that was considered breakthrough film analysis back then?).
But millennials, who cherish, love, and still host screenings of the film, celebrate its quiet genius and its ability to encapsulate the profound absurdity of parenting. The movie demonstrates — through faulty bunk beds and brutal lawn fights — that we’re all a stone’s throw away from f*cking it up royally. It’s nostalgic for a simpler time, when parenting wasn’t all “figured out” by bloggers and child therapists. It also demonstrates how far we’ve come in the realm of parenting since boomers and Gen-Xers messed us all up.
Step Brothers is a buddy comedy starring Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, and a painfully dumb premise: two guys in their late 30s named Brennan and Dale (Ferrell, Reilly) still live with their parents Nancy and Robert (Mary Steenburgen, Richard Jenkins) and behave like adolescent boys. Will they ever get over their differences and bond? Even more importantly, will they ever defeat their snooty older brother Derek (Adam Scott), keep the family together, and grow the hell up?
The plot becomes ingeniously surreal when we start to believe that Ferrell and Reilly are actual teenage boys. Their mannerisms and priorities are so on-point, from Dale’s unhealthy obsession with his drum kit to Brennan’s shyness about his singing voice, which makes his mother gush.
The rules of this world are unclear and, frankly, unimportant. We don’t know why Brennan and Dale live at home or what sequence of events led to this disaster (an allusion to benevolent parental neglect), but we can extrapolate from Nancy and Robert’s actions in the present.
Let’s first get this out of the way. Mary Steenburgen is a goddess as Nancy. I pray that the good Jebus will give me her grace, patience, and her hair every day. She plays a fabulous departure from the 2000s shrew mom, and she’s not a total pushover either. But, she’s an enabler, which is very aptly pointed out by Brennan’s shrink, Denise, at the end of the movie.
“You’re an enabler. You think you’re helping, but you’re not,” says Denise.
“And you’re a keeper!” replies Nancy. They all laugh and don’t dive any deeper into a clearly dysfunctional situation, which is basically the through-line of the film.
Nancy is, as Gen-X and boomer parents were with adolescents, incompetent. Robert, too, seems to have neglected his son Dale over the past couple of decades. Finally, though, Richard notices that things have gone too far, and he periodically rages as a result.
But it’s too late. The parents can’t control their “boys.” They’ve let the situation spiral for too long. Brennan and Dale have everything they need right in their parents’ living room, and they’re not leaving.
It’s a time capsule of a dumber time.
Before mommy blogs and hyper-vigilance started dictating motherhood, there were bungling parents like Robert and Nancy. They believed they had given their children every advantage, and they couldn’t fathom why Dale and Brennan became giant man-babies.
Many millennials were the recipients of this bad parenting ethos, which is perhaps why we find Step Brothers so hilarious. We were unsupervised by parents who believed that a roof over our heads and a couple of video games were just as good as parenting. Therapy and self-reflection were stigmatized. Everyone was emotionally stunted and too busy to understand their dickhead teenagers. Any one of us could be Dale and Brennan today.
True story: I once wore flip-flops and jeans to a job interview because nobody told me differently. The manager called me out for it, and — surprise — didn’t hire me. That was the first time I learned that you needed to wear formal-ish clothes to job interviews. It’s very hard to imagine that now, with all the blogs and information and pressure for career perfectionism among kids today, but that’s why I particularly love when Brennan and Dale go on interviews wearing inappropriate formalwear. It’s a time capsule of a dumber time.
Kids need to be taught to wear real shoes to job interviews. They’re not f*cking psychic, OK?
We have to forgive Robert and Nancy their mistakes. They were boomers. They’ve never read a parenting thinkpiece in their lives and thought it was about them. They’ve never conceived of slacker children because making money was so easy to do, and it was the only thing to do. You just did it. You just worked with a pension. You just raised kids. You just had a boat. You didn’t overthink things.
(These are their lines as they f*ck each other:
“My name is Robert, and I play racquetball. I collect coins.”
“Sweet Jesus! I love Korean food. I am Nancy Huff. I know how to make tandoori chicken…”
“... I contribute to NPR every single year… and I love the movies of Rob Reiner.”)
While we suffer from extreme judgment and anxiety, millennials have been called the most competent generation of parents. We are more involved in our children’s lives and their well-being as rounded humans. We embrace the identity of parenthood, rather than making it into a burden that you just have to do because that’s America. We’re all in therapy or medicated.
Perhaps we find it vindicating to watch Nancy and Robert reap what they’ve sown. The boys eventually get it together, but the damage has been done. As a family, they combust. Instead of doing any form of self-searching, Nancy and Robert had to learn their lesson the hard way: by messing up their kids so badly that they jeopardized their marriage and retirement. If it weren’t for the Catalina Wine Mixer, it would all be in the toilet for them.
But in real life, there are no Catalina Wine Mixers. There’s early-intervention therapy. There are lawsuits against your own kids. There’s couples counseling and alimony. There’s hardship and bullshit. There’s alternating anti-depressant doses. There’s Tully and Boyhood, and sweeping vistas of humorlessness.
Step Brothers taught me to be proactive, early. It taught me to be gracious and kind like Mary Steenburgen, but to address issues before they spiral. Things don’t just work themselves out. Kids need to be taught to wear real shoes to job interviews. They’re not f*cking psychic, OK?
Besides, if you’re a millennial, you probably don’t have enough room in your home for your 39-year-old child and his shenanigans. Unless you want to get bunk beds.