Our Idiot Brother

2011, Movie, 95 mins

Review

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Paul Rudd might be the best comic actor of his generation. That doesn’t mean he’s the best comedian, it means he can inhabit three-dimensional characters and get laughs with dialogue, and that he can find the nuances to make a character that could easily be played as a one-note joke into a real human being. The latter is what he does in Jesse Peretz’s Our Idiot Brother.

Rudd plays Ned, a hippie pacifist and organic farmer who, during the course of an opening scene that beautifully establishes both the movie’s tone and the main character’s open-hearted personality, gets shipped to jail for selling drugs to a uniformed police officer. When he gets out, he needs help from his three sisters: Vanity Fair underling Miranda (Elizabeth Banks), who’s trying to get her first big story into the magazine by interviewing an heiress; housewife Liz (Emily Mortimer), whose documentary filmmaker husband, Dylan (Steve Coogan), loathes Ned; and would-be standup comic and bohemian Natalie (Zooey Deschanel), whose girlfriend, Cindy (Rashida Jones), is a lawyer. Into their lives Ned tumbles, and thanks to his naivete and trusting nature, dirty family secrets start coming to light. Meanwhile, Ned keeps visiting his parole officer, and trying to take custody of his dog, Willie Nelson, who’s being kept by Ned’s ex-girlfriend Janet (Kathryn Hahn).

In different hands, say Will Ferrell’s, Ned would be a cartoon hippie, and the movie’s comedy would come from us laughing at his outrageous facial hair and socially awkward behavior. With Rudd, Ned becomes someone whose seemingly annoying traits are actually a virtue. There’s a key scene halfway through the film where Ned says that he knows he’s too trusting and open with people, but believes all the goodwill he puts into the world will come back to him. That belief in karma is what makes Ned a noble hero rather than a buffoon, and it gives the movie a surprising layer of depth.

This isn’t a psychological drama, though, it’s a character comedy, and the laughs are plentiful. In addition to a wealth of seemingly improvised throwaway lines from Rudd, there are a number of comedic set pieces -- the family going en masse to rescue Willie Nelson from the domineering Janet; Ned accidentally discovering Dylan’s affair; and Ned’s TMI visits with his parole officer, to name just a few. There are many characters and a strong cast, and Peretz does an admirable job of giving everybody the right amount of screen time. Ned and his sisters all have traditional story arcs, but the film’s low-key offhandedness and gentleness keep the plot mechanics fresh. There’s a goofy sweetness to the whole movie, and thankfully the laughs don’t come at the characters’ expense, but grow out of the clash of their personalities.

The movie works so subtly that you might not realize how deeply engaged you are until Ned cracks for the one and only time in the film. During a game of family charades, he explodes in frustration, and the effect is as sobering on the characters as it is on the audience. You realize in that moment how much you care about Ned, even while you’ve been laughing the whole time. What makes Our Idiot Brother so good is that Peretz and Rudd make sure we see why, contrary to all appearances, Ned really isn’t an idiot at all. leave a comment --Perry Seibert

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