Published Sep 12, 2015When the dysfunctional family comedy The Steps opens, Jeff (Jason Ritter) is spouting an abundance of bullshit — career prospects, exciting social outings — via a montage of voicemails he's leaving for an estranged girlfriend. He's lost his job in the financial sector, and judging by the single beer and leftover Chinese food in his refrigerator, he's a bit of a sad sack. After learning that his father (James Brolin) plans to get married, he reaches out to his sister Marla (Emmanuelle Chriqui) to bitch and share awkwardly worded complaints about how neither of them wants to hang out with a bunch of hicks in Ontario. As Marla doesn't know the name of the man she's in bed with, we understand that she's a bit promiscuous. Unfortunately, in the world of The Steps, male career failures are akin to the female lack of sexual discrimination — and no, The Steps wasn't made in 1983.
Before pointing out the many ways in which this clumsy, trite and painfully strained comedy fails, it should be noted that director Andrew Currie is actually quite capable. Mile Zero and Fido were both effective, demonstrating that he has an aptitude for framing troubling drama and dark comedy. But The Steps, which is ostensibly a broad comedy of clashing worldviews (and outdated stereotypes), feels cheap and laboured; it's never funny and is often aggravating.
Obviously, from the opening sequence, we're in for a lesson in shifting priorities. Jeff and Marla are self-righteous losers that somehow feel superior to small town Canadians. Initially, their need to point out their big city origins seems sort of contrived — suggesting that the script was written by someone who's never actually been around a privileged, affluent socialite — but once the children of Sherry (Christine Lahti), their aging waitress-class-soon-to-be-mother-in-law, are introduced (the film takes place over a weekend at Ed's (Brolin) country abode with two family's meeting for the first time), it's clear that no one is going to portrayed with any sort of integrity or humanity.
Her redneck son David (Benjamin Arthur), who owns a paintball emporium and wears army fatigues, is married to Tammy (Kate Corbett), a generic, Tim Horton's-swilling soccer mom in training. She refers to Marla as "fancy" and "glamorous," which is obviously a bid for comedy — "look how exaggerated our depiction of small town trash is!" — but it never works. Similarly, Sherry's other son, Keith (Steven McCarthy), is a failed musician and recovering addict. His character breakdown is mainly expressionless gazes and perpetual sulking. Eventually, he indulges in some erratic behaviour, which never actually fits his character or the story, in order to progress things and build to a wholly contrived climax (involving highly coincidental pornography viewing habits).
Outside of the fact that none of the gags ever work — Jeff perpetually rolls his eyes at night when he can hear Sherry and Ed fucking, and he's always patronizing David's lack of class — the actual story is often infuriating. Jeff spends almost the entire movie bitching and lashing out at people when David isn't behaving like an ADD-afflicted 13-year-old. While there's some truth in Jeff trying to determine that Sherry, an overly friendly, spandex-wearing cougar, is just after money, the unlikely way in which the issue is brought up and dealt with doesn't touch on any sort of human insight. Everything just sort of devolves into a bunch of yelling and unrealistic reactions, and since these people are all just broad stereotypes whose actions define their character, it's difficult to care about the outcome. At the end of it all, the only actor that's managed to salvage some sort of sincerity and heart in the appalling cliché written on the page is Lahti, whose heartfelt handling of a rather misogynistic third act plot twist is quite touching.
Unfortunately, The Steps is merely another example of why Canadian cinema has such a bad reputation. There's no subtlety, nuance or wit, and every gag is so over-the-top and mindless that it's hard not recoil from the screen as they unfold. When making a comedy about human behaviour and interaction, it might be a good idea to consider how humans actually behave and interact.