Will Ferrell is back on-target in the dumb movie sweepstakes as Brennan Huff an over-grown overly sensitive son who has never bothered to move out of single mom’s (Mary Steenburgen) house even though he’s 40. When she meets falls in love with and marries an older doctor (Richard Jenkins) all before the opening credits are over Brennan must move into his new stepfather’s home where--you guessed it--39 year-old loser and would-be musician Dale Doback (John C. Reilly) has been living with Dad all these years as well. The new siblings who give stunted growth a whole new definition bunk together like 10-year olds with an instant rivalry that causes havoc in the household. Soon they find themselves birds of the same feather when fed-up dad announces he is selling the house and going on an around-the-world cruise with his new bride. The hapless pair are ordered to find decent jobs and a new place to live--a prospect neither relishes. After an earlier misstep this year with the inane Semi-Pro Ferrell is back in his comfort zone and finding new sparks opposite Reilly who despite the failure of his recent starring comedy Walk Hard continues to show natural comedic abilities. The two are fun to watch as they mine a lot of laughs playing imbecilic but lovable adolescent middle-aged men--Peter Pans who just never grew up. Still it’s the supporting cast that really shines. Jenkins--enjoying the best year of his career especially with his stellar turn in The Visitor is now complementing it with his riotous portrait of a put-upon dad dealing with a couple of morons who have overstayed their welcome by about 20 years. Steenburgen manages to invest the rather colorless mother role with dignity even earning a couple of laughs on her own. Adam Scott as Ferrell’s real-estate mogul brother is consistently fun particularly in leading a family sing-a-long while driving to bro’s house. Also of note Kathryn Hahn as his mousy but extremely kinky wife who tries to get down and dirty with Reilly.
Ferrell’s writing partner Adam McKay is not only co-scripting again but back behind the camera guiding Ferrell’s and Reilly’s on-screen nuttiness. Adam McKay an SNL veteran who was responsible for two of Ferrell’s biggest hits Anchorman and Talladega Nights knows from experience exactly how to take these over-the-top situations and wring every last laugh out of them. Movies like this are hit and miss so give McKay credit for hitting more than he misses. Each actor even the lesser-billed ones have their moments to shine and it’s a nice tribute to McKay’s laid back direction that none of them bellyflop. The premise of Step Brothers clearly presented some potentially rich comic possibilities and McKay and company uncover most of them. Certainly the film should strike a responsive chord with those faced with grown kids either coming back home to live or never leaving in the first place--if not quite to THESE extremes.
It can’t just ALL be about a boy wizard named Harry Potter. There have to be other fantasy-driven stories grounded in reality that are just as exciting. And so there is: The Spiderwick Chronicles a series of short books by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black which tells us about the magical creatures who live around us but who remain invisible so we humans won’t freak out. Probably a wise choice for most but there are a few who want to see the creatures. One such person is Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn) a turn-of-the-century naturalist who has witnessed the likes of sprites goblins hobgoblins ogres and trolls at work. He has documented their secrets and habits in his Field Guide--a book that if placed in the wrong hands could make some fantastical beast maliciously omnipotent. Jump ahead some 80 years when we meet Spiderwick’s descendents the Grace family who have moved into his dilapidated house in the woods. Newly divorced mom Helen (Mary-Louise Parker) has uprooted her kids--teenage Mallory (Sarah Bolger) and twins Jared and Simon (both Freddie Highmore)--to start a new life with Jared being the one protesting the loudest. That is until he finds Spiderwick’s field guide and quite literally opens Pandora’s box giving evil ogre Mulgarath (Nick Nolte) who has desperately wanted the book since its inception the window of opportunity he’s been waiting for. The Grace kids have to band together--with a few otherworldly allies of course--to protect the book at all costs. Although Highmore (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) struggles at times with the American accent the young British lad continues to prove his worthiness in the acting department--and joins the ranks of playing twins onscreen that dates back to Patty Duke on The Patty Duke Show (yes they were just cousins but they were identical cousins). Highmore does a nice job distinguishing between the two boys but he seems to have the most fun playing Jared. And rightly so since Jared is the true hero of the story. He is deeply wounded by his parents’ divorce blaming his mother for it all but in discovering this magical and dangerous world that goes way beyond his personal problems he quickly snaps to it. Bolger (In America) too takes her clichéd older-sister-who-knows-everything role and freshens it up adding a fierce determination to protect her family--with an expressive face that makes her very watchable. The adult cast isn’t nearly as important but they all fit in nicely especially Joan Plowright as Great Aunt Lucinda Spiderwick’s 80-something daughter who saw her father taken away by sylphs the keepers of the faeries’ secrets when she was 6 and has been trying to explain it ever since. Then there are the voices of some of the creatures the Graces meet including Martin Short as the ever-faithful house brownie Thimbletack; Seth Rogen as the hobgoblin Hogsqueal a piggish and friendly fellow whose spit in the eye gives you the Sight; and Nolte as the horrible villainous Mulgarath. OK all those who believe in faeries raise your hand! The Spiderwick Chronicles is just the kind of story that gets an imaginative kid to run out to the garden to start looking for sprites and director Mark Waters inherently understands this. Better known for his comedies such as Mean Girls and Freaky Friday Waters nonetheless grabs hold of the Spiderwick’s mythology and firmly plants it in reality with normal modern kids encountering a whole magical realm. Taking from the illustrations of co-author Tony DiTerlizzi Waters also gives us new versions of magical creatures we’ve read about for ages. Goblins for example look like giant frogs and act like attack dogs in this film as opposed to the more civilized view of them in the Harry Potter books--and goblins in Spiderwick can be killed by tomato sauce which melts them. Nice touch. Trolls too aren’t great big lumbering fellows but more dinosaur-like in Spiderwick. And let’s just say ogre Mulgarath looks nothing like Shrek but more so a devilish creature with yellow eyes and great big horns. Spiderwick is indeed scary at times maybe too scary for the younger kids but the action sequences and chase scenes are thrilling enough to keep everyone else’s attention.