'Our Idiot Brother' Earns Trust
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
"That was everything I had wanted 'Crazy, Stupid, Love.' to be," my screening companion noted with some satisfaction after seeing "Our Idiot Brother." While the two films would seem to not have a whole helluva lot in common with each other in terms of specific story elements, I could certainly see her point. The Sundance hit is a genuinely smart, pointed, lively and ultimately benign modern comedy of manners and mores and sex, and all the more successful for having a relatively refreshing viewpoint, as its sweet but very socially awkward title character is seen throughout through the prism of not one but three female perspectives.
Ned (Paul Rudd), the title character, establishes his titular characteristic right off the bat: The hippie-ish upstate New York farmer -- whose rhubarb is so great because it's fertilized by the leavings of Willie Nelson (the joke here, in case you're concerned, is that this is the name of his dog) -- lets himself be talked into selling a bag of weed to a uniformed police officer. That's the kind of idiot he is: not stupid, but a goofily trusting naïf who also can't help telling the truth.
After jail and an unsatisfying stint at the old house with his mom, this latest variant of "Candide" makes his way to the big bad world, that is, New York. And there he inadvertently makes bigger messes of the already messy lives of his sisters. There's Liz (Emily Mortimer in her self-effacing "Lovely & Amazing" mode), whose marriage to brittle, haughty documentary maker Dylan (Steve Coogan, at his apogee of brittle and haughty) has left her a mother of two and a dowdy, passive mess. There's ambitious, put-together would-be magazine journalist Miranda (Elizabeth Banks), whose oppressive self-involvement keeps her from finding love even as she makes her actual Mr. Right, Jeremy (Adam Scott), into her lapdog. And finally there's adorable, flaky Natalie (Zooey Deschanel), whose upcoming living arrangement with loving lawyer Cindy (Rashida Jones) is soon to be upended by a distinctly heterosexual biological development. Ned has couch-or-bunk-bed sleeping stints at each of their residences, and in a series of vividly played-out scenarios, makes their already difficult lives more difficult.
I recently heard the adage "Honesty without love is cruelty." Ned's a very loving guy, but his unrelenting honesty has no common sense. This leads him to inadvertently reveal Dylan's philandering to Liz on the one hand, and doggedly refuse to lie to the lawyers at a major magazine on the other. The film's varied unique-to-major-metropolitan-areas confrontations and conundrums are very deftly limned by co-screenwriters David Schisgall and Evgenia Peretz, the latter the sister of director Jesse Peretz and herself a renowned magazine journalist; the pair are themselves the children of Martin Peretz, the head of The New Republic. Given their pedigree, you might expect "Our Idiot Brother" to be somewhat insufferable know-somethingish, but it's hardly that. It is instead somewhat genuinely knowing, surprisingly fleet-footed, and inevitably good-hearted.
As poorly as the three sisters can behave, the film never gives the sense that they're out-and-out awful people, and the movie's empathy is nearly as winning as its comedy. From the terrifically laid-back Rudd down, the movie has a uniformly marvelous cast, and each one gets a moment to shine. A scene in which Scott's vulnerable cynic warns Ned about the young would-be fashionistas in a foofy coffee shop is almost as much of a comedy gem as the "Annie Hall" watching-passerby-in-the-park bit that obviously inspired it. And so on. While too overtly modest to be a comedy game-changer, "Our Idiot Brother" is almost sufficiently feisty and entertaining to render the term "a Sundance movie" something less than dread-inspiring.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.