[26 August 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
In the cinematic vernacular, every family has one - the oddball, the black sheep, the under (or un) appreciated rebel relative who makes life simultaneously difficult/ exciting/ insightful/ exasperating. They don’t just walk to the beat of their own unique social or interpersonal Buddy Rich - they rip off the drum kit and dance naked around it in a celebration of Mother Nature’s eternal cosmic cool. Usually, they are uncles or aunts, free spirits who forgot the Summer of Love (or the New Age Movement) ended when Charles Manson went gonzo in the California hills (or when PC became a pariah).
Our slacker savant this time around is named Ned, and he’s a clueless outdated hippy type who does dumb things - like sell marijuana to an uniformed policeman - while spewing the kind of witty, wordy curatives his ailing family craves. He dresses like a drop-out from the most recent Phish tour and speaks in a style reminiscent of someone on permanent mental vacation. The rest of the clan may consider him their ‘idiot’ brother, but he’s really more of a magical man-child myth waiting for a Grateful Dead concert that will never come.
Ned (a passable Paul Rudd) spends a few months in jail for his drug deal debacle, and upon release, discovers that his irritating earthy girlfriend (Kathryn Hahn) has given him the boot from their organic farm co-op. She’s moved in his best buddy (TJ Miller) and won’t return another favored friend - a loyal dog called Willie Nelson. Severely bummed, our hero heads to Mom’s (Shirley Knight). She is more than happy to take him in. Eventually, Ned decides that living with one of his three sisters might be a better idea.
He initially settles on uber-post modern parent Liz (Emily Mortimer), who is so locked in to getting her precocious son into a good grade school that she can’t see her documentary filmmaker husband (Steve Coogan) is fooling around. Then there is Miranda (Elizabeth Banks), a type-A journalist wannabe who is desperate for a scoop. Finally, there’s Natalie (Zooey Deschanel), a lesbian in training with a wandering eye and a supportive lawyer girlfriend (Rashida Jones). As he causes chaos and concern with every move, Ned soon discovers his family’s sense of shame over who he is. Naturally, the numbskull ignores such disrespect to help them all with their iffy urbanite problems.
There is nothing worse than a movie which misrepresents itself. Our Idiot Brother, an R-rated comedy coming at the end of a Summer season filled with same, is about as scatological as a school play. Instead, the MPAA classification comes from the rampant use of the F-bomb, which the cast seemingly use as a grammatical space holder. If this were a movie made by Woody Allen (which the ensemble element to the humor and the sophisticate NYC setting more or less suggests), we’d get urban mensch angst instead of blue sailor salutes. Indeed, the biggest problem with this otherwise likeable film is that director Jesse Peretz and his writers, sister Evgenia and Schisgall, don’t know a good thing when they’ve got one.
In Rudd, who recognizes the aw-shucks Zen of his character’s situation, they have an actor able to channel both the stooge and the savant of his charge. Instead, they keep piling on the pot humor and forget all about everything else. Ned is a completely open and honest person. He relates on a level few if any even contemplate anymore. Taken to extremes and extrapolated out to creatively comic ends, he could be Chauncey Gardner from Being There, or a far less Southern fried Forrest Gump. Instead, Peretz probes the obvious areas for jokes. Do we really need another riff on the Whole Earth Bitch Goddess, or the uptight and emotionally constipated career gal? This movie thinks so.
There are moment where magic does happen. Whenever Ned interacts with his sheltered nephew River (Matthew Mindler) or his earnest probation officer, the movie finds a kicky karmic groove. Our hero’s purpose is revealed and we revel in it. Then, he has to deal with his drama queen siblings and the whole thing falls apart. Of the three, only Liz’s story works a bit, and that’s because the aforementioned kid is part of it. Otherwise, Mortimer and Coogan are wasted as the clueless couple headed for a date in divorce court. Almost nothing they do - nothing - is funny.
Banks and Deschanel fair a bit better, but are once again flummox by a script that can’t figure out how to make them into something other than archetypes. Will Miranda undermine her brother’s goodwill to steal juicy details for a tabloid story? You bet. Will she then blame him when discovered? Yep. Will she then admonish him for suggesting her possible hook up with a willing downstairs neighbor (Adam Scott)? You get the idea. As for Natalie, she’s a non-entity, a struggling stand-up (???) cipher who can’t decide on what side of the slope her sexual orientation lies. By the time she’s gone from bi to lesbian to straight and back again, we’re tired of her post-collegiate experimenting. Besides, she whines too much. In fact, everybody whines too much here.
As a result, Our Idiot Brother becomes a collection of complicated countermands. On the one side are almost all the leads. On the other are interesting turns from the supporting players. At the center is Rudd, running Ned through his predicable threat-to-therapist paces before settling in to the narrative’s restrictive precepts. Thematically, there is nothing new to discuss - the kinfolk must begrudgingly learn to appreciate their baffling brother even if he does things which are embarrassing/encouraging/spontaneous/stupid. From the audience’s standpoint, we are supposed to sigh at how true it all is and laugh at the universality of the sentiment - except, most people’s lives are a lot more complicated than the sitcom styled circumstances that pop up here. Not everyone has an idiot brother. Likewise, not every movie about one is engaging - or entertaining.