Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Big Review: Our Idiot Brother

The last review that I submitted as a single man, for whatever that's worth. Kind of a lazy, half-committed affair--the movie, that is.

Also, no round-up for this month, but October will be a different story completely. On tap: The regular goodies, plus an interview with one of my favorite journalists, one who just happens to have written a new book.

Oh, the suspense!

This review was originally published in ICON and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)


*********************

Our Idiot Brother, Jesse Peretz's comedy-drama, is enjoyable and pleasant but spends too much time finding its place. The movie resembles its title character, Ned (Paul Rudd), a hippie farmer with a heart of gold and a brain of tin. Ned annoys the hell out of his family, but it's the meandering plot that will cause audiences consternation.

While manning the stand at his local outdoor market, Ned sells weed to a uniformed police officer whose sob story dissolves any common sense. After eight months in prison, Ned departs as hardened and skeptical as a Smurf. It's fitting that his longtime girlfriend Janet (the indispensable Kathryn Hahn) throws him out of his own place, keeps his beloved dog, and takes up with a younger, spacier boyfriend (T.J. Miller). But there is a ray of hope. Ned's replacement paramour says that the goat shed out back is available. If Ned can put together two months' rent—no worries, Janet will be cool with the new arrangement—the space is his.

Only family could endorse such an idiotic plan, so Ned bounces among his three infinitely more grounded sisters. Liz (Emily Mortimer) enlists Ned to lug film equipment for her pompous documentarian husband, Dylan (Steve Coogan), and watch their prep school-bound kid. Ned also serves as a chauffer during a big assignment for overly ambitious journalist Miranda (Elizabeth Banks). Natalie (Zooey Deschanel), an aspiring stand-up comic with seemingly a dozen roommates, recruits Ned as a nude model for her artist friend (Hugh Dancy).

Ned's good-natured, trustworthy attitude makes him a rarity in New York City, but it also leads to an array of problems. Ned discovers Dylan in a compromising position with his film's ballerina subject, which exposes Liz as a rapidly aging dishrag. His rapport with Miranda's interview subject leads to a shocking revelation and exposes Miranda's duplicitous nature. And when Ned reveals Natalie's malleable sexual tendencies to the aforementioned artist, it threatens her very serious relationship with a lesbian lawyer (Rashida Jones).

The problems created by Ned's organically grown logic disrupt the ladies' lives while improving them; they're forced to face their real selves. That's the main focus of Our Idiot Brother. It's not the right one. Husband and wife writers Evgenia Peretz (Jesse's sister) and David Schisgall invest way too much time constructing outlandish scenarios that lead us to that realization while more compelling elements escape their attention.

This includes how the three sisters interact with each other. It's an odd move to say the least. Mortimer, Banks, and Deschanel excel at comedies and dramas; you can make the case that Mortimer (Lars and the Real Girl, Lovely & Amazing) is the most underrated actress working today. The three have a scene where Miranda and Natalie bemoan Liz's diminished hotness that is so natural in its loving combativeness that you wish the movie had five more just like it. The family's shaky dynamic gets abandoned except in brief flashes, like when Ned unleashes his true feelings during a game of charades. How did everyone get to this point? And where's dad in all this mess?

Plot architecture is swell, but not at the expense of character development and storylines. What's so aggravating about Our Idiot Brother is that abundant comic possibilities also get underutilized. There's plenty here for a splendid goofball comedy, especially with Rudd leading the way. Hahn and Miller are great as the two nimrods who turn Ned's domestic dispute into a farce, and Adam Scott shines as a nice guy who loathes Miranda's bitchy fa├žade but falls for her anyway. These performances don’t feel tied to the film, which is content to wander here and there like a Lollapalooza attendee. If something is funny or stirs you, that's a bonus. We're just gonna have Ned stumble into revelations and see what happens.

Director Peretz (The Ex) and his writers are enamored with options, but they never choose anything. (That notion is reinforced with a cast whose size is almost wasteful.) With the level of talent involved, Our Idiot Brother is guaranteed to be fine unless your director doesn't know the difference between "action" and "cut." But a great cast and an idea with this much potential shouldn't come attached with excuses. And it certainly should be better than a lazy afternoon distraction. [R]

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