Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Our Idiot Brother Movie Review

Paul Rudd is simply wonderful at playing the easy-going  supporting characters. He’s been dramatic, forlorn, hilarious, and steady in films ranging from The Object of My Affection to The 40 Year Old Virgin. Remember what a perfect foil he was for the flaky Phoebe on “Friends”? Years of playing second fiddle in a variety of comedies has finally paid off for him with a recent series of leading roles, most recently as the bearded hippie peacenik Ned in Our Idiot Brother.


Ned has three sisters, each of whom is, by appearances, more traditionally successful than Ned. He’s a bit of a loafer, living in a commune on Long Island. Then he mistakenly sells weed to a uniformed police officer and finds himself on the wrong end of a short prison sentence. Upon his release he finds his controlling and mean-spirited girlfriend, Janet (Kathryn Hahn), is now shacking up with Billy (T.J. Miller), who is somehow impossibly nicer and more forgiving than even Ned is. Perhaps the two of them should form a friendship. With no room left at his old home he stays first at his mother’s house, getting tucked into bed at night, and then later with his sister Liz (Emily Mortimer) and her husband Dylan (Steve Coogan). Liz is a housewife and Dylan, a documentary filmmaker, has apparently given up on their sex life. Or later evidence suggests that it was Liz who gave up, but at least she continues making some effort.

The other sisters are Miranda (Elizabeth Banks) and Natalie (Zooey Deschanel). Miranda is a journalist for Vogue, eager to get a juicy story from a British celebrity whose sex tape was made public. She barely has time for anything outside the upward mobility of her career resulting in a failure to even notice that the neighbor whom she tantalizingly flirts with might actually be a compatible match for her. Natalie is also a free spirit like Ned, dabbling in such activities as stand-up comedy (in small venues frequented only by her best friends), lesbianism, and infidelity.

Ned truly is an idiot, as the title tells us. When he catches Dylan literally with his pants down in front of the ballerina who is the subject of his film, Ned innocently accepts his absurd explanation. He also thinks of his parole officer as a therapist, consequently telling him things he really shouldn’t. What makes Ned work so well as a character is Rudd’s performance. There was never a moment when I didn’t believe 100 percent that a man could be so cluelessly happy about everything, even as his beloved dog, Willie Nelson, is taken away from him. Coogan is unfortunately a bit lost in a screenplay, written by David Schisgall and Evgenia Peretz, that doesn’t give him anything funny to say or do. The biggest laugh he gets is by bending over and revealing (in a rear shot) his dangling scrotum. Yes, go away and let that image linger in your mind’s eye for a while. Beyond that, Coogan doesn’t really get the opportunity to dazzle us with his spectacular wit. He does play smarmy and pompous with just the right air of prick, however.

The three ladies playing Ned’s sisters have some good chemistry between them, particularly in one scene where things finally come to a head and they go at one another. The way a conversation begun with concern devolved into a mean-spirited catfight seemed entirely believable to me. In fact, my wife commented to me that it was just like her and her three sisters. None of these three busy ladies has much time for Ned to help him out. They don’t want him staying in their houses because, in the case of Liz, he teaches her son to be violent in a house where aggression is not permitted. As for the other two, Ned means well when he makes his choices, but by his nature he just can’t help getting in the way. Their mother, Ilene (Shirley Knight) is just kind of there to be doddering and to love unconditionally.

Ultimately the movie doesn’t have a whole lot going for it to elevate it above the level of distracting entertainment. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that. It’s much more dramatic in places than I would have expected. Anyone thinking they’re going to see another Apatow-style romp due to the presence of Rudd and Banks should just turn back. Director Jesse Peretz does a fine job of moving the action along at a good pace, avoiding what too many comedies do these days in wearing out their welcome. This is a much more grounded story, designed to teach a little moral lesson – that it’s important in life to slow down once in a while and smell the hippie flowers.

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