Our Idiot Brother

Comedy in B Major

In Jesse Peretz’s Our Idiot Brother, we get a triptych of beautiful women whose personal lives seem to gravitate around one guy: their brother.  This might be a good film with which to try the old gender unfairness challenge – see if you can find a scene in this movie where two or more women (with names) talk to each other about something other than a man (in this case the brother in the title) and/or something influenced by him.  Even in a film with a principally female cast, such as this one, it’s a tall order.

Our Idiot Brother is a good-hearted comedy (albeit with enough F-bombs to destroy a small country) about a sweet guy.  In Ned (Paul Rudd, looking like one of the Avett Brothers), we get perhaps the most simultaneously lovable and misunderstood character since Del Griffith.  His sisters, Miranda (Elizabeth Banks), Natalie (Zooey Deschanel), and Liz (Emily Mortimer) have dysfunctional relationships with each other, Ned, and their mother (Shirley Knight), who drinks her pain away and seems to be the only one who cares about Ned.

At the outset of the story, Ned is entrapped by one of the evillest police officers in film history, and put in prison after inadvertently selling the officer marijuana.  When he returns home, his girlfriend, Janet (Kathryne Hahn), a hypocritical hippie (hippie-crit?), has dumped him for another guy (T.J. Miller) without telling him.  Ned is now homeless.  The story threads progress, tie together and come loose as Ned moves in with one sister after the other, attempting to help them with their problems but always messing something up due to his unbridled sensitivity.  Promiscuous Natalie’s relationship with her loving partner, Cindy (Rashida Jones) hits the rocks when the former becomes pregnant after a one-night stand; Ned must be the bearer of bad news.  Liz and her controlling husband (Steve Coogan) shield their young son from everything he loves; Ned is the only one who understands, and interferes (with the best intentions, of course).  Miranda and her nerdy roommate (Adam Scott) get along fine until Miranda scores an interview with a famous dignitary, who would much rather talk to Ned.

The film plays out in an evenly-paced, well-timed comic narrative centered around a character with a great heart, a good man who knows only how to be good.  He’s forgiving, understanding, and gives even the worst of people the benefit of the doubt (including Liz’s cheating husband).  He even feels terrible for declining a threesome when he realizes another man is involved.  Some scenes will have you cracking up, and some will give your heart a tug when you’re least expecting it (particularly a scene featuring a game of charades with Ned’s entire family).

Paul Rudd’s performance is the stuff of mystery.  Who knew he had this kind of role in him?  We know he can be a protagonist and a straight man to Steve Carell’s funny guy, but his performance in Our Idiot Brother blends these archetypes into something unique and welcome.  It’s a genuinely sweet story in a sea of gross-out comedies.  A relationship between two women is portrayed as serious, committed (mostly) and never as the butt of a joke.  There’s even a dog with an interesting name – watching a bearded Paul Rudd running through the streets of New York shouting “Willie Nelson!” as bystanders look on in befuddlement is the perfect exclamation point.

Rudd’s next role, aside from garden variety comedies, is in an adaptation of The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  I don’t know if I’d call it an opportunity to show us he’s prolific, but if he wanted to shake his typecasting, especially after a performance like this, I’ve no doubt he could.  I, for one, will root for him.

Our Idiot Brother (2011); written by Evgenia Peretz; directed by Jesse Peretz; starring Paul Rudd, Zooey Deschanel, Elizabeth Banks, and Emily Mortimer.

Dinner For Schmucks

Be nice to your goats

It becomes evident within the first twenty minutes of Dinner For Schmucks that that “schmucks” in question are the very people attending the dinner.  At the onset, the movie reminded me of a film I wrote and worked on – Slices – which featured characters meeting when the protagonist (straight man) hits the secondary main character (funny man) with a car, following which he gives him a ride, and the adventure begins.  I was flabbergasted until I remembered that when I was writing Slices in 2007, I was creating a project in the vein of conventional double-act comedy.  After that, I was able to enjoy myself.

The film features Steve Carell as the funny man and Paul Rudd as the straight man.  Rudd’s character, Tim Conrad, is offered a high-paying position at the company he works at (by the time the film is halfway done, you won’t remember what the company is or what they do or what they’re called; you’ll just remember that they’re a classic group of misogynistic suit-wearing pricks with a ton of money).  As part of the company’s tradition, Tim is required to attend a company dinner and bring along an “idiot” to make fun of.  Why this would be funny or plausible in real life without the “idiots” realizing what was going on is beyond me, but it makes for an interesting comedic premise, to be sure.

Of course, Tim decides to bring Barry Speck (Carell), a taxidermist who collects dead mice and creates colorful dioramas with the corpses.  After a fight with his girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Sztostak), Tim is left with Barry, who mistakes which night the dinner is.  Together they adventure through L.A. in hopes of bringing Julie back, running into a nice cast of bizarre characters including Tim’s insane ex, Darla (Lucy Punch); Barry’s mind-controlling IRS boss, Therman (Zack Galifianakis), and eccentric artist Kieran Vollard (Jemaine Clement), with whom Julie is thought to be cheating on Tim.  Clement brings yet another quirky and well-acted performance to a comedy film, all but stealing the show again in this one.  As Vollard tells us, “There are only two things in this world: wonderful, visceral, sexy sex; and death.  Horrible, boring death.”

The film also features Bruce Greenwood, Ron Livingston and David Walliams in small roles, as well as Larry Wilmore, The Daily Show With John Stewart‘s “senior black correspondent,” and Kristen Shaal (also of Flight of the Conchords and The Daily Show).   It seems as though Stewart’s show is now a gateway into comedy films and larger comedy careers in general, as exemplified by Carell, Stephen Colbert, Ed Helms, Mo Rocca, Rob Riggle and Rob Corddry.

The performances and direction fit the bill.  It’s a well-cast film with an ear for comedy, though it doesn’t have as many laugh-out-loud moments as the recent Date Night or Get Him to the Greek.  The film perhaps makes up for it with some truly touching moments, including a scene where we find out exactly what some of Barry’s weirdest dioramas are really referring to.  The dinner itself, the film’s centerpiece, has a lot to live up to, and while it’s not chock-full of gut-busting one-liners, it’s got enough color and bon-mot-flinging to satisfy.  It even features appearances by Patrick Fischler of ABC’s Lost and Jeff Dunham, who does his annoying ventriloquism thing.

Despite not containing one occasion of the word “schmucks,” the film is a charmer with some real heart, not to mention Steve Carell on his comedy A-game.  Go see it, for schmuck’s sake.

Dinner For Schmucks (2010); written by David Guion; directed by Jay Roach; starring Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, and Jemaine Clement.