By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
More apt but less sensational and doubtlessly harder to fit on a marquee, director Jesse Peretz’s “Our Idiot Brother,” starring Paul Rudd as the supposed nitwit, should be titled “Our Idealistic but Somewhat Overtrusting and Occasionally Foolish Brother.” But forgiving this little bit of false advertising, it is a convivial and good-willed farce.
We like Mr. Rudd’s happy-go-lucky, warmhearted and muy simpatico Ned who, if he had lived in California’s Topanga Canyon during the late 1960s, would be crowned king of the flower children. Living on a farm in upstate New York, he’s conscientious, organic and full of Greenpeace. But oh Ned, how could you sell grass to a uniformed policeman?
Hey, the local cop was singing the blues to our caring soul while he manned his stand at a farmer’s market, and that’s just the kind of dupable hairpin Ned is. The good deed punished, he is tossed into jail and thus separated from his co-farmer/girlfriend, Janet (Kathryn Hahn), and Willie Nelson, his adored golden retriever. He serves eight months.
Upon regaining his freedom and returning to the soil, Ned finds that Janet, a disingenuous harpy he is well rid of anyway, has taken up with another farmhand (T.J. Miller). But far more egregious, the shrew asserts that Willie Nelson is hers. What’s more, he will have no visitation rights. Thus the story asks, what’s a poor fool to do?
Well, in this case it means seeking the at least temporary sanctuary of family. But soon after he’s ensconced at the old homestead on Long Island, we get the drift. Mom, played by Shirley Knight, likes to drink a bit. While loving, she obviously displayed little faith that Ned would ever amount to anything. His similarly inclined sisters followed suit.
To a woman, each of his three siblings is by now used to rolling her eyes with every new plan or stage of brother Ned’s life. While he is to receive love, it is unaccompanied by respect or admiration. They see him as a sweet boy clueless to the rigors of life, for the most part a sugarcoated liability. Naturally, each has a reason why he can’t live with her.
Nevertheless, Miranda (Elizabeth Banks), Natalie (Zooey Deschanel) and Liz (Emily Mortimer) can’t avoid a turn sheltering the romantic optimistic. Hence, screenwriters David Schisgall and Evgenia Peretz pave the way to dissect the gals’ purportedly more important and challenging lives.
So, let’s start with Emily Banks’s Miranda, a writer for “Vanity Fair.” The story introduces the whirlwind of hyperactivity just as she’s been given her first really big assignment: an interview with Arabella (Janet Montgomery), the misunderstood, unfairly scandalized heiress. Now guess what happens when Ned chauffeurs Miranda to the gig.
Next is Nat, more like Ned only in that she’s open-minded. While recently embarking on a same sex relationship, complications arise when she lapses into a momentary dalliance with the other camp. With Ned acting as go-between among the various players, we’re not surprised when his good intentions wind up putting Nat in Dutch with her mate.
Then there’s Liz, the married one. Said to have been a statuesque beauty before letting a humdrum marriage to a cheating documentarian turn her into an uptight, conservative frump, her reproving sisters do allow that she’s still tall. When it’s her turn to harbor little brother, he bonds with and becomes advocate for his stifled, seven-year-old nephew.
The archetype for this old saw is “We’re No Angels” (1955), wherein three escaped convicts help out a troubled family who unwittingly hides them. Contending the outsider sees much clearer than those embroiled in their unfulfilling environment, the genre’s scope usually extends beyond the story and serves as a metaphor rife with life lessons.
In this variation on the theme, it’s the black sheep of the family, heretofore unheralded for his perspicacity, who seeks to aid, abet and maybe gain some props in the bargain. Adroitly filling the persona, Paul Rudd is a good casting choice. On every entertainment writer’s most promising list when he first started out, he’s just now reaching his stride.
While equally capable in both humorous and serious roles, perhaps his greatest talent lies in the ability to engagingly perch between the extremes. Witnessed here and in several of the so-called raunchy comedies like “I Love You, Man” (2009), he lends credibility in situations that could very well go out of control without his stabilizing presence.
But skipping all the movie critic balderdash and self-aggrandizing theories, Mr. Rudd’s dreamer in a world inhospitable to his natural bliss is just plain likable. He’s the underdog we love to cheer for…even if the movie around him isn’t as winning. But mind you, no hurry. The smart money will find “Our Idiot Brother” just as entertaining on video.
“Our Idiot Brother,” rated R, is a Weinstein Company release directed by Jesse Peretz and stars Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks and Zooey Deschanel. Running time: 90 minutes
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