The opening frames tell us all we need to know about Ned. There he is, long hair and beard and loopy grin, tending his organic food stand, handing out free strawberries to a hungry little girl and a baggie of weed to a uniformed cop. Yep, a cop – Ned is generous to a fault and naive beyond the point of imbecility. Of course, the kind-hearted goof is a staple of dumbed-down comedies but, in Paul Rudd's hands, this guy is different. He's truly, palpably loveable, and Our Idiot Brother should be too. Yet it isn't. What goes wrong?
Not what typically goes wrong, but more about that later. For now, it's sufficient to know that Ned, after a stint in the slammer thanks to his marijuana largesse, heads back to the farm only to learn that his girlfriend has dumped him for another field hand and, what's worse, she ain't parting with his beloved canine companion. Homeless, jobless and dogless, our beta male eventually wends his way to the big city, where he finds rotating shelter in the homes of his three very alpha sisters, plus their significant others, along with a child or two.
So begins the first problem: The ensemble is unwieldy and the attendant yarn much too cluttered. Let's add it up. Sister Liz (Emily Mortimer) is an earnest mom living in hip Brooklyn with her husband the documentary-maker (Steve Coogan), a hypocritical liberal with a snooty accent and a roving eye. Their son, burdened with the name of "River," is one of those abundantly protected kids suffering from underexposure to video games and rough sports. Meanwhile, in the West Village, sis Miranda (Elizabeth Banks) is a Vanity Fair scribe pursuing a tell-all story about some rich royal with a checkered past. She's also caught up in a slow-to-bud romance with her friend Jeremy. Finally, elsewhere in Manhattan, there's Natalie (Zooey Deschanel), an aggressive bi-sexual currently dedicating herself to a lesbian relationship, albeit with occasional time-outs for male visitors.
Already, that's quite the tally, which puts director Jesse Peretz in an immediate quandary: How to introduce and then juggle so many characters all embedded in their separate crises? Answer: Haphazardly. Peretz wants the pace brisk but settles for choppy – much of this flick looks to have been edited in a food processor. The conceit doesn't help, since Ned is obliged to bounce erratically among his sisterly trio, inadvertently wreaking havoc as he goes between wife and hubby, parent and child, journalist and subject, lesbian and lover. He's here, he's there, he's everywhere and nowhere – at this stage, choppy gets downright messy.
Which bring us to the atypical problem. Usually, in these cluttered affairs, the comedy is as manic as the surroundings, and, desperately swinging for the big yuks, the movie ends as just another loud strikeout. Not here. To the contrary, the over-plotted script is consistently underplayed, which might have proved admirable if more of it worked. Instead, all setup and no punchline, entire scenes come and go with scant comic payoff. The quiet treatment just seems weirdly at odds with the wacky premise. Excuse the heresy, but you almost find yourself wishing they'd inject a little Adam Sandler into the mix.
The exception is the title role. Admittedly, Ned isn't a bundle of hilarity either, but he is something much rarer – genuinely and contagiously likeable in a Capra-esque sort of way. He's much more than a dim-but-decent cliché, precisely because of what he's not – not cynical, not world-weary, not self-pitying and, unlike Sandler, not annoying. This time, the underplaying pays dividends as Rudd keeps him from sliding past Capra-esque into Capra-corn. He gives Ned an insouciant amiability that doesn't feel sentimental – just laidback, more childlike than childish, and oddly assured.
Consequently, among the secondary characters, men and women alike are attracted to him despite themselves, and it's fun to watch their faces registering surprise, as if to say, "It can't be that I'm actually falling for this, can it?" Well, we fall along with them. Strange, then, how Our Idiot Brother wastes its lone asset – there's not enough idiot, and far too many boring savants.
Our Idiot Brother
- Directed by Jesse Peretz
- Written by Evgenia Peretz and David Schisgall
- Starring Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel
- Classification: 14A