Thursday, September 01, 2011

'Our Idiot Brother' is congenial low-key comedy

“Our Idiot Brother” deserves to be a big comedy hit, but alas it is struggling at the box office. I blame the title, which sells the movie short. This isn't a film like “Dumb and Dumber” that is full of silly, stupid humor. Instead it is a surprisingly sweet comedy about a dysfunctional family.
The film opens with Ned (Paul Rudd), the titular idiot brother, being sent to jail for selling pot to a uniformed police officer. When he gets out, his girlfriend (Kathryn Hahn) has a new guy (T.J. Miller) and won't let him move back onto their organic farm. Even worse, she refuses to give him back his dog Willie Nelson. Ned is left with nowhere else to go but the homes of his three sisters (Zooey Deschanel, Elizabeth Banks and Emily Mortimer).
Given Rudd's appearance in the film — shaggy, long hair and beard paired with neo-hippie clothes — and the fact that he has a dog named Willie Nelson, it would be easy to think this is going to be a stoner comedy. The film isn't, and while there are a couple pot-related jokes, at the core this comedy about family.
Ned isn't really an idiot at all. He does things that can be perceived as stupid, but in actuality his biggest fault is that he is good hearted, trusting and believes that people are, for the most part, generally good.
The film's theme seems to be that the world is full of selfish, self-involved jerks and if you're a nice, honest person then you're an idiot. The script by first-time screenwriters David Schisgall and Evgenia Peretz concludes we're ultimately better off being like Ned. 
The arc of the film is fairly obvious from the beginning. All of his sisters have problems in their life that they try to ignore. When Ned's honesty brings these faults to the fore they use him as scapegoat for everything that is wrong in their lives. Of course, Ned's good nature wins everyone over in the end.
This material could be very cloying and insincere if handled poorly, but the script has enough moments in it that feel true. The sisters are fairly flatly written and one-dimensional, but they are played by some of the most charming actresses working today. The caliber of the work by Deschanel, Banks and Mortimer makes some of the more shrill, less pleasant aspects of these character more tolerable.
The tone of the film is light and low key and full of laughs both verbal and physical. Rudd is very good as Ned in a role that is slightly more laid back than his usual fare. His dry, deadpan timing is still there, but it is dialed back in a way that is sweet and lovable. You just want to give him a hug.
Rudd, who despite being one of the most reliable comic actors in such films “Anchorman,” “Knocked Up,” “The 40-Year Old Virgin,” “I Love You, Man” and “Role Models,” still isn't a household name. This could be because he is a generous performer who doesn't showboat.
Even when in the lead role, Rudd always works as part of an ensemble cast or at the very least a duo. He's the kind of comic actor who feeds off of those around him, and when he's surrounded by equally funny and talented actors everyone just becomes better.
This holds true for “Our Idiot Brother.” This cast works extremely well together. Rashida Jones as Deschanel's girlfriend is a standout and easily the most likable of all the women in the cast. She is very funny in a subplot to rescue Willie Nelson. Adam Scott also scores laughs as Banks' would-be boyfriend. Scott and Rudd have a couple scene were they trade banter that is easy-going and full of wit.
There is one scene that makes the film attain another level. It is a confrontation between Ned and his sister in which the normally soften spoken and passive Ned finally snaps. The way it is handled has such emotional honesty that it gives everything before and after it more meaning and significance. The scene changes a consistently funny comedy into something deeper and better.

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