Is there a better comedic leading man right now than Paul Rudd? Since throwing in with the State gang for the cult classic Wet Hot American Summer, then hooking up with Judd Apatow for a supporting role in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Rudd has revitalized his career with a series of expert comic performances, movie-star appealing yet also actorly in their precision. While Rudd may be best known for the sort of goofball charmer since Clueless in 1995, he’s also shown remarkable, sometimes subtle, versatility.
In Our Idiot Brother, he’s far from his Ruddiest. His Ned is a hippie-ish, stoner-ish rambler so good-natured that his faith in humanity becomes its own special sort of dimness. This faith is why Ned comes to sell pot to a uniformed cop and wind up in prison for four months and why, when he gets out, he finds that his live-in girlfriend Janet (Kathryn Hahn) has taken up with another bearded dip. More wounding, she has taken custody of Ned’s beloved dog, Willie Nelson.
Attempting to get back on his feet, Ned proceeds to bunk with each of his three sisters—the film is structured around him crashing into their lives and making accidental messes. Liz (Emily Mortimer) is married with a kid; Miranda (Elizabeth Banks) is a chilly Vanity Fair writer seeking her first big story; Natalie (Zooey Deschanel) is an artsy Brooklyn girl trying to commit to her girlfriend Cindy (Rashida Jones). The movie is shrewd in developing a family resemblance between Ned and his seemingly disparate sisters; you can see how they started with similar middle-class, lite-bohemian values and took them in different directions.
Liz, for example, favors a cultured, socially conscious life, but with her insufferable documentary filmmaker husband Dylan (Steve Coogan), she has become restrictive of their young son. Miranda tries to profile a do-gooder socialite, but her subject opens up instead to the more genuine, disarming Ned. Natalie, meanwhile, celebrates her freedom by living in a Bushwick loft with six roommates, even as Cindy pressures her to look at apartments in Brooklyn Heights. The sisters contrast with each other, not just black sheep Ned, their underlying tensions coming to the surface when a secret about Liz’s home life is revealed. What begins as a heart-to-heart ends with all three women turning on each other (and Ned) with hilarious ease.
The comedy’s accessibility might make it seem surprising at first that Our Idiot Brother is a festival pick-up rather than a studio project, though less so when you consider how many people considered Crazy, Stupid, Love. a smart movie for adults this summer. This one has less sitcom-style hand-holding, trusting its audience to appreciate character details, like the ever-present glass of wine in the hands of Ned’s loving mother, or the mediocrity of Natalie’s stand-up comedy routines.
That said, just measuring by star power, Our Idiot Brother should have warranted higher-profile backing. Much of the ensemble has intersected before: Jones and Rudd were in I Love You, Man, Deschanel has played with other Apatow associates like Will Ferrell and James Franco, and Banks and Rudd have appeared in three other films together. This may account for the familial chemistry of just about everyone onscreen. Each actor, down to the smallest parts (even a few, like Jones and the invaluable Adam Scott, who could use more screen time), is a pleasure to watch, which makes each subplot, even the most stock of them, a delight.
Usually this many funny people would be assembling for a raunchy, cameo-packed broad comedy, but there is a distinct grown-up air around Our Idiot Brother. It’s not about Ned learning to grow up or even entirely about him teaching lessons to his wayward big-city family. Rather, it observes siblings navigating their way through an adulthood that has already arrived. Granted, the film arrives at a few too many easy, predictable resolutions. But the characters are so enjoyable to watch that these conclusions feel more earned than they should.
Anchoring all of this is Rudd. He’s departed from his default persona before, to play dorkier (I Love You, Man) or more caustic (Role Models). Here he has the even trickier job of making Ned likable but not saintly, and spacey but not stupid. That gift for finding humor in sincere specificity, like Ned’s enthusiasm at the prospect of watching Dune with a near stranger, pushes the whole movie along.