Our Idiot Brother
Every year a few little movies with a bit of muted promise sneak up and surprise me. While Johnny Depp’s Rango did so earlier this year, the charming and infectious Our Idiot Brother joins that list. It’s literally as if Jeff Bridges’ “The Dude” from The Big Lebowski (1998) has inhabited the body of the ever lovable Paul Rudd, resulting in an edgy, poignant comedy that you must keep on your movie radar screen.
The biggest surprise about Brother, and this is giving nothing away, is that the strength of the movie flows not from the concentration on Paul Rudd’s hippy-dippy character named Ned, but on his three sisters, Miranda, Natalie and Liz, played respectfully by the talented trio of Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel and Emily Mortimer. While Mr. Rudd is captivating as a good-natured, guileless chap whose highest aspiration in life is to serve the public by working at a continuous series of Farmer’s Markets, he is “Dude-like” in every respect. His mantra is centered on doing good and treating people kindly with the expectation that he will be treated similarly in return.
Needless to say, things go tragically wrong for Ned when he succumbs to a uniformed policeman’s entreaties to help find some pot to take the edge off a bad week. As one might imagine, his altruism lands him in jail for six months, although old affable Ned did derive great pleasure from being named the prison’s most cooperative inmate for the last four months of his incarceration. Simply stated, Ned may be a fish out of water in a cynical society, but he has never known a moment of depression in his entire life.
But what makes this film coalesce into a genuine heartfelt drama, allowing it to rise above the “Seth Rogan-like package” you were led to expect from the previews, is that Ned was merely a fulcrum around which twirled his three damaged sisters. As Miranda, Elizabeth Banks is perfect as a Vanity Fair reporter who literally would sell her soul for a story that will get her national notice. Everything about her is perfect, from her hair to her clothes, not to mention her four-inch heels. Well, almost perfect given one small flaw, namely that she is all form and no substance.
As Natalie, Ms. Deschanel is the foul-mouthed, sexually confused lesbian sister whose relationship with her lawyer partner (a wonderful Rashida Jones) is continually threatened by her flakiness. One of the great surprises of Brother is the subtlety and grace with which it treats this lesbian relationship.
As the third sister, Liz, the talented though underrated Emily Mortimer gives an understated performance as a frazzled young mother trying to balance the emotional demands of tending to a young family and a cheating husband. The very funny Steve Coogan plays Dylin, her philandering beau. His is a thoroughly unsympathetic role that reminds me of Mr. Coogan’s comic complaints about his standing in Hollywood as expressed in this year’s hit and mix faux documentary The Trip.
Since Ned lacks any guile or the semblance of artificial phoniness, his sisters find themselves involuntarily confronting their own character weaknesses when Ned moves in temporarily with them. As each harmlessly confides in him, it repeatedly blows up when Ned innocently repeats their many confessions. Sure, they want to blame their brother, but they know in their hearts who is at fault.
However, as strong as the above characters are, Adam Scott, Katherine Hahn and T.J. Miller come close to stealing the film. Mr. Scott plays Jeremy, the aimlessly earnest boyfriend of the hard-charging Miranda. He is laconic, laid back and screamingly funny, particularly his interplay with Mr. Rudd.
Ms. Hahn gives an utterly memorable performance as Janet, the easily flustered, organic farming ex-girlfriend of Rudd who immediately dumps him when he goes to jail. She wastes no time taking up with Mr. Miller’s Billy, a monosyllabic well-meaning simpleton who looks and acts like a throwback to the days of the Woodstock Festival in the 1960’s. This is a guy that you positively know wakes up and goes to bed stoned.
Writers David Schisgall and Evgenia Peretz have put together a script that is alternately hysterical and emotionally evocative. Director Jesse Peretz has orchestrated our cast into a collective ensemble where you genuinely can’t help but care about all of them. That is the ultimate testament to this fine film’s inherent strength.
Sure, you are going to see better films this year, but I dare say that you will never see one more endearing. Paul Rudd has never been better since Role Models (2008) and neither has Ms. Banks. Emily Mortimer has been sensational in everything, and if you need any proof just look at the overlooked little gems City Island (2009) and Lars and the Real Girl (2007).
What you have in Our Idiot Brother is a movie where you are destined to say, “You know, I really liked that film.” Keep it in mind when you are hunting for that elusive Christmas gift for a movie lover.