Movie Review: Our Idiot Brother, a Comedy of Uplift

MY IDIOT BROTHER Photo: The Weinstein Company/MY IDIOT BROTHER ? 2010 photo by Nicole Rivelli

Famous actors, even if they start out as decent people, become overentitled quickly, but it would pain me deeply if Paul Rudd were in real life a jerk. It would seem such a cruel blow, such an affront to the idea that we can see through a performance and into an actor’s soul. Rudd just seems nice to his core. And his niceness — juxtaposed against characters that brim with neuroses — makes Jesse Peretz’s Our Idiot Brother a nice enough little comedy for a summer’s end.

Rudd plays Ned, a friendly, go-along-to-get-along screw-up of a brother to three high-strung sisters played by three high-hipness-quotient actresses, Emily Mortimer, Elizabeth Banks, and Zooey Deschanel. In the first scene, the scruffy Ned is selling vegetables at a farmers’ market when a cop (Bob Stephenson) approaches and says it’s been a rough week; he asks if he can buy some pot. A cop in uniform. Really. And Ned, although he first laughs off the request, is touched by the man’s apparent plight … It’s almost too painful to recount. Anyway, when he gets out of jail, Ned visits his sisters and messes up their lives by being too guilelessly — and, for sure, idiotically — honest about what he sees.

Our Idiot Brother is a comedy of uplift, which means that those family ties end up strengthening rather than strangling. In the script by David Schisgall and Evgenia Peretz, each sister really needs her foundation exploded by a holy fool like Ned. Mortimer’s Liz has a philandering, egregiously untalented rich-boy snob of a husband (Steve Coogan) and a child wilting under too much cultural/nutritional correctness. Banks’s Miranda, a glossy celebrity mag staffer with a not-quite boyfriend (Adam Scott), is a hard snarl of ambition and ambivalence. And Deschanel’s Natalie is a mess of nerves after cheating on her girlfriend (Rashida Jones) with a man.

The characterizations are broad but there are countless funny curlicues, from each of Miranda’s pathetic attempts to get a tight-lipped socialite to spill her guts (it’s Ned who induces her to relax her guard) to Kathryn Hahn’s demented mixture of hippie-dippiness and hostility as Ned’s stoner ex-girlfriend. Not everything works. Coogan has been playing assholes for so long that he no longer bothers to account for their assholeishness. And there’s something slightly conceited about the movie’s limpness: You can feel Peretz patting himself on the back for his flabby timing, for setting up a laugh and not going for it. But Rudd’s stoned, slow-witted readings unify the movie’s tone. In a world that moves too nonsensically fast, retardation can be a higher form of wisdom.