Our Idiot Brother

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 08/26/11 00:00:00

"Spaced Oddity"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Watching improvised comedy being performed live on stage can often be an exhilarating experience because of the genuine sense of mystery and excitement in the air due to the fact that no one--neither the audience nor the performers--can be sure of where the scenes are heading or even if they will make it to a conclusion without falling apart. The trouble with watching improvised comedy in a film is that the sense of immediacy that makes it so thrilling on stage is necessarily lost and unless the resulting material is dead solid perfect, the only danger involved is that the antics will grow tiresome long before the end credits appear. On the other hand, because movie comedies generally require a certain lightness of tone as well, the trick is to come up with a screenplay that is borne of a unique comedic perspective that has been honed into a smartly paced narrative free of all extraneous material and then placed in the hands of people who are able to inject it with enough joy and anarchic energy to make it feel as though they were simply making things up as they go along. Alas, too many movie comedies of late have failed at this task but one that does succeed at it is “Our Idiot Brother,” a quirky, idiosyncratic and very funny movie that suggests what the old theatrical warhorse “Harvey” might have been like if the role of Elwood P. Dowd were to be understudied by spiritual descendent Jeffrey Lebowski. This is a smart and solidly constructed work in many ways but it is filled with such reckless charm and heedless good cheer that it seems as if everyone involved was winging it from beginning to end.

Paul Rudd stars as Ned, a sweet-natured, idealistic and overly trusting soul who,
as the story opens, is arrested for selling a little pot to a police officer. How
idealistic and overly trusting is he, you may ask? The cop in question was in full
uniform at the time. Anyway, after a few months in prison, where he seems to have bonded with everyone on both sides of the bars, Ned is released only to discover that
his pseudo-hippie girlfriend (Kathryn Hahn) is not only kicking him out for good but has
laid possession to his beloved dog, Willie Nelson, for good measure. With nowhere else
to go, Ned returns home to his doting mom (Shirley Knight) but after a while, he finds
himself bouncing between the homes of his three sisters--ambitious journalist Miranda
(Elizabeth Banks), stay-at-home helicopter mom Liz (Emily Mortimer) and goofball free
spirit/occasional lesbian Natalie (Zooey Deschanel)--and wreaking such serene and
inadvertent havoc on their lives that it comes as virtually no surprise to discover that
his favorite movie character is Inspector Clouseau.

While working as an assistant to Liz’s documentarian husband (Steve Coogan), he inadvertently breaks up the marriage and scotches their son's
chances of getting into the snooty private school that the boy doesn’t even want to
attend in the first place. Moving on to Miranda, a “Vanity Fair” writer pursuing her
first big story about the scandalous life of a young heiress who only wants to talk about
her charitable works, he proves to be a godsend at first when the heiress opens up to
him about everything and then a nightmare when it comes to letting her use all the dirt
in the article. With Natalie, it would seem like things would click but even there, things
go wrong when she inadvertently gets pregnant after a one-night stand with a hipster
douche of the highest order (Hugh Dancy), news that certainly comes as a surprise to
her girlfriend, Cindy (Rashida Jones), when Ned offhandedly mentions it to her in the
mistaken belief that Natalie already confessed to the indiscretion. (To make matters
extra-awkward, the revelation comes during a clandestine attempt to retrieve Willie
Nelson while the evil ex is out at a Dixie Chicks concert.) By this point, the three
sisters are all fed up with Ned for torching their respective lives but as it turns out,
he is just as upset with them and for far better and deeper reasons than their
essentially shallow and self-involved concerns.

Despite the title, one of the best things about “Our Idiot Brother” is that Ned turns
out to be anything but an idiot. If he had been portrayed as such, the results might have
been amusing to a certain degree but watching a dummy cluelessly and systematically
destroying the lives of everyone around him for 90 minutes is the kind of thing that
could grow very tiresome very quickly, as anyone who saw “Bean” can attest. No, while
Ned is labeled an idiot by everyone around him, he is simply a genuinely nice and honest
person who, like all of us, was told at an early age that lies and deception were wrong
and, unlike most of us, has based his entire existence to living up to those ideals. Take
that aforementioned opening scene involving selling the pot to the uniformed cop, he
would have blithely sold it without even noticing the badge and then we would have
laughed at him for being so stupid. Instead, he knows that the guy is a cop and denies
knowing anything about any pot but when the cop continues to press him on it, he
second-guesses his original instincts because he cannot believe that anyone, especially
a policeman, would deliberately lie to him for no other reason other than to get him into
trouble--instead of laughing at the character and his dopiness, the film has us laughing
at the situation while still feeling totally sympathetic towards Ned. The screenplay by
David Chagall & Evgenia Peretz comes up with a number of inspired variations on this
conceit but at just the point when it seems as if it might be pushing Ned’s naivety a
little too much, he finally shows some backbone with a surprisingly strong and deeply
felt scene in which he snaps back at his sullen sisters for using him and his good nature
as a scapegoat for their own personal mistakes. What really sells both the scene and the film as a whole is the wonderful performance by perennial scene-stealer Paul Rudd in a
role seemingly tailor-made for his blend of laid-back lunacy that has saved many a recent comedy--in an age in which nearly every comedic depiction of innocence seems to be delivered at a distance and surrounded by air quotes, this is one that is so thoroughly convincing that you genuinely believe that Ned has never heard of the word “cynical” before and wouldn’t grasp it no matter how long you explained it to him.

Our Idiot Brother” begins to falter a bit at the end during the inevitable scenes in which Ned’s sisters realize that they have treated him badly and endeavor to make things up to him--these moments aren’t badly done but they are the kind of moments that have been seen too many times before and have been presented without any new spin on the material that might have freshened it up a bit. And yet, there are plenty of other aspects to the film worth treasuring from the deceptively loose but surprisingly tight screenplay, the smart and assured direction by Jesse Peretz (who, now that you mention it, is the brother of one of the screenwriters) and the combined efforts of the large, talented and eclectic cast (though the sell-by date of the screwball-chic chick persona that Zooey Deschanel has been embodying on screen for years is rapidly coming due) backing up Rudd. Watching their combined efforts is like watching a skilled jazz band going through their paces. At first, things may seem wildly free-form as all the players get their moment at center stage but there is a cohesion to the players and the material that keeps it from spiraling into chaos and when everyone, seemingly against all odds, finish things off at the same time and on the same note, the effect is so impressive that you’ll want to applaud them, both for making it look so easy and for the sheer amount effort that presumably went into making it look so easy

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