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Our Idiot Brother

August 27, 2011
Our Idiot Brother

Postmodern society is basically constructed on a foundation of well-meaning lies and deceptions which we — meaning well — tacitly call “semiotics”. What is or is not appropriately “done” takes a certain amount of sophistication. And this is really the root of comedy: undermining this balancing act we all play. So what if we cut straight to the chase and throw in an equally well-meaning idiot who is oblivious to this layer and simply lives his life with nary a hint of irony or pretense?

One way this could play out is Dinner for Schmucks, where Steve Carell caromed off of Paul Rudd’s carefully-constructed life as someone who we appreciate in our rearview mirror, but want to stay there. The other way is Rudd’s latest project, Our Idiot Brother. Basically, what you have is a big shaggy golden retriever of a man who knocks all the china off the table as he crashes into its leg, but who you can’t help but love anyway.

Specifically, you’d have Ned (Rudd), who’s just coming off of eight months in prison for giving some pot to a uniformed police office just for the asking; four of those months he won Most Cooperative Inmate. His girlfriend Janet (Kathryn Hahn) has taken up with a new half-stoned organic farmer, Billy (T.J. Miller), and wants nothing to do with Ned. She won’t even let him take his dog, Willie Nelson.

And so Ned ends up back in New York with his mother (Shirley Knight) and three sisters, Liz (Emily Mortimer), Miranda (Elizabeth Banks), and Natalie (Zooey Deschanel). Liz is married with two children to an insufferable bobo documentarian (Steve Coogan) and chooses to ignore evidence of his infidelity; Miranda is an up and coming journalist on a big assignment from Vanity Fair to get a story out of an heiress that their interview agreement explicitly states to be off-limits, and she refuses to acknowledge her mutual attraction to a neighbor (Adam Scott); and Nat lives with her lover, Cindy (Rashida Jones), but conceals the fact that she retains a bit of her polyamorous streak.

All these houses of cards are upset, one by one, as Ned bounces from one house to another. But of course he’s never malicious; he genuinely has no concept of when to shut up, except when it would help his sisters’ designs for him to speak out. He honestly wants nothing but the best for anyone, and trusts even strangers on the subway implicitly.

It’s great to see Rudd turn around and play the flip side of his Dinner for Schmucks character. And as usual he plays the he’ll out of it. If anything, I get the sense that Ned is a closer match for his own temperament. His sisters are all great, though Mortimer’s and Banks’ foils are less so.

Jones, though, really comes through with a great character; there’s no real need for Nat to be a lesbian — or at least uncertainly bisexual — but once that decision is made the execution could have been ugly and ham-fisted indeed. While Cindy is clearly the more butch of the two, she’s still distinctly feminine and far from a stereotype.

From start to finish, this is a very funny movie. It’s almost absurdist at time, and though the humor derives from the awkward situations Ned finds himself in — which awkwardness he never picks up on, of course — it doesn’t feel as uncomfortable as some farces do. We’re not laughing at Ned; we’re laughing at the story.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: another judgement call; Cindy and Nat have some conversations, but that might be too little to count. Also the sisters talk a lot, and often about Ned; if it’s about a male character, but not about him as A Man, does that count? Could you say they’re talking about what they’re going to do about him and not about him himself? With two close ones, I’m going to just say it passes.

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