This past weekend saw the $30 million opening of Step Brothers, the latest fart-addled film product from Judd Apatow's ceaselessly productive, money-printing comedy factory. In it, formerly serious thespian John C. Reilly plays a 40-year-old man-child who meets his idiot match when he becomes accidentally related to Will Ferrell (all customary physical humor, name-calling, and testicle-showing ensue, naturally). While we watched, it occurred to us that John C. Reilly is getting so good at being Will Ferrell, it's easy to forget he was once almost Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Remember Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson's sprawling, Altman-y 1999 film, with the Aimee Mann songs and the frogs? Amid a large ensemble cast were two rising actors on the verge of breakout: Reilly and Hoffman. The pair played the movie's working-class heart and soul — Reilly as a lonely cop, Hoffman as a lonely nurse — quiet sounding boards for other characters broken by lives of privilege and decadence. Anderson, who'd cast them before in Hard Eight and Boogie Nights seemed to recognize they were cut from the same cloth — actors of considerable talent, depth, and pants size, both with invisible technique and an impressive knack for disappearing in a role. Their performances in Magnolia, the movie's two most memorable, made clear they were headed for bigger things.
And, for a while at least, it seemed like they were headed for the same thing. In a 2000 Broadway revival of Sam Shepard's True West, Hoffman and Reilly earned Tony nominations by alternating roles nightly as brothers, a straight-laced, college-educated screenwriter and a transient white-trash burglar, who gradually morph into the same person. From there, Hoffman won critical and commercial notice with supporting parts in acclaimed hits like The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain; Reilly did too, in The Hours and Chicago, for which he scored an Oscar nod. Reviews for Hoffman's performance in 2003's Owning Mahowny tipped him as one of the leading actors of his generation; that same year, Daniel Day-Lewis, Reilly's co-star in Gangs of New York, called him a "terrible man" for "making all the actors around him look like they're acting."
These days, though, their work couldn't possibly seem more different. In 2006, Hoffman won an Oscar for his portrayal of Truman Capote and, for reasons still unclear, Reilly fell in with the Apatow fraternity, playing Will Ferrell's NASCAR sidekick in Talladega Nights. Hoffman followed Capote with serious roles in The Savages, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, and Charlie Wilson's War, which got him another Academy Award nomination. Last year, Reilly countered with a biopic of his own: Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. And while Hoffman's never been a drama snob, exactly (as you may recall, he once pooped his pants in a Ben Stiller movie), at this point in his career, the chances of him making a movie with McLovin seem as unlikely as Reilly's of winning an Oscar.
In Step Brothers, it's actually Reilly responsible for most of the Ferrell-esque humor; the best (and dumbest) lines ("Your voice — it's like a combination of Fergie and Jesus!") are his, plus, of the two main stars, he spends the most onscreen time in his underpants, astonishing considering who he's up against. Even more amazing, though, is how quickly and capably he's been able to fill the role of the classic Apatovian lead, a job for which, on paper at least, he seems to have none of the requisite credentials (he was never on Saturday Night Live OR Freaks and Geeks). So why, then, did he change directions? He turned down Anchorman in 2004 to make The Aviator — did he regret it? Was he sick of earning a character actor's salary? Maybe he just felt like having more fun. Heck, any of these reasons probably would've done it for us.
But who's really better off now? Hoffman can take his pick of challenging dramatic roles; Reilly gets to party with Seth Rogen and Sacha Baron Cohen on weekends. Hoffman shoots depressing sex scenes with Marisa Tomei; Reilly does hilarious ones with Jenna Fischer. Hoffman has the respect and adoration of critics and peers; Reilly is almost certainly making more money. Hoffman … actually, he may want to give McLovin a call after all.