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.

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