Our Idiot Brother, or Paul Rudd can ACT

Our Idiot Brother is an okay movie, a pretty good comedy, and a stellar vehicle for star Paul Rudd. He’s so funny, and the last decade has been spent largely in the comedy world (he co-created and wrote Party Down, thus earning him Platinum Status in the Comedy Club), so it’s easy to forget that Rudd is a good actor, not just a good comedian. Our Idiot Brother is a testament to Rudd’s acting chops, though it’s also a showcase for his timing and delivery skills (look for the way he catches himself and backs up to the hand sanitizer in the ballet studio scene). If you’re a Rudd fan, this movie is a must. But if you’re not a Rudd fan, I’m not going to break your arm to make you see this movie. It’s sweet and keeps it mild insights limited to things we know—we should believe in each other more, let kids be kids and accept our siblings for who they are.

There’s nothing to dislike about Our Idiot Brother, except for its insistence on sticking to the most basic stereotypes for characterizations. My theory is that so much went into the creation of Ned (Rudd) that the writers (documentarian David Schisgall and Evgenia Peretz, sister of the movie’s director) skimped out on everyone else. Ned has three sisters and each fill a stereotype. There’s Liz (Emily Mortimer, Shutter Island), the eldest and the only one that’s married. Her husband is Dylan (Steve Coogan, The Trip), a documentary filmmaker. They live a privileged, Upper Westside kind of life—you know, obnoxious bobos (bourgeois bohemians, or rich hippies). They have a kid, River—whom they over-schedule and over-parent—and a new baby. The spark has left their marriage and it’s made clear early on that Dylan is an asshole (Coogan is slightly too convincing in these dickweed roles).

Then there’s Miranda (Elizabeth Banks), a journalist at Vanity Fair who is getting her first big break profiling a celebutante (Janet Montgomery, Entourage’s Jennie). Miranda is tightly wound, controlling, but still kind of scatterbrained. She’s what Sex and the City tells us all upwardly-mobile New York women are like. Finally there is Natalie (Zooey Deschanel), the still-adrift youngest who is a lesbian, or maybe she’s just bi, but either way she’s slutty, haha! She’s also a terrible stand-up. Into the fray comes Ned, released from prison after selling pot to a uniformed police officer. Ned wanted to return to the organic farm he was living at/working on before, but he finds his girlfriend (Kathryn Hahn, Step Brothers) is shacking up with a new guy and also won’t give Ned back his dog, Willie Nelson.

And so Ned arrives in NYC, taking Liz at her word when she says, “Our door is always open”. Of course it isn’t—Dylan and Liz are insincere and self-involved, but Ned is the kind of person who trusts everyone to say what they mean, because that’s what he does. Ned, as played by Rudd, is kind of a beautiful character. It’s not that he’s naïve, it’s just that be truly believes if he expects people to be good, they will be good. He’s a hippie and a child at heart and everything is sunshine and rainbows in his world. He would be annoying except that he’s so damn sincere. His meddling in his sisters’ lives isn’t the product of ill-will but brutal honesty. He doesn’t play the same bullshit games of appearances that his siblings do and his particular brand of candidness continually wrecks the constructs they’ve created to manage their lives. One by one he blows up his sisters’ worlds until he’s got them all dealing with the realities of their misguided choices.

What really impressed me about Rudd was a scene toward the end when he loses his temper with his sisters. He’s almost frightening in his pent-up anger. Negativity exists in Ned, perhaps even a scary deep well of it, but he chooses to focus on the simple and the happy. Ned doesn’t want to be a bitter, unhappy person like his sisters and so he lives his life in a way that, though his siblings look down on him, allows him to keep an even keel and remain mellow. Rudd’s efforts as Ned up to this point are so blithe and easy that it doesn’t feel like work, but in this scene it’s like, Oh yeah, Paul Rudd is a really good actor. In a lesser talent’s hands, Ned would have been two steps shy of mentally unsound. His childlike worldview would’ve been easy to play as a kind of Simple Jack, but Rudd goes darker than that in this scene, tapping into the prospect that if Ned wasn’t a “man child”, he would likely be a terrible son of a bitch.

While Banks, Mortimer and Deschanel do a good job as the sisters, it’s the supporting cast that deserves a cookie. Hahn is great as Ned’s ex, Janet, a horrible harpy who clearly doesn’t like Willie Nelson but also doesn’t want Ned to have his beloved dog back. Rashida Jones (Parks & Recreation) is as enjoyable as ever as Cindy, Natalie’s girlfriend. Adam Scott (Parks & Rec, Party Down) doesn’t have much to do but he makes the most of Jeremy, Miranda’s best friend. Hugh Dancy has a small part as creepy-ish artist who hits on Natalie, and Matthew Mindler is remarkably unaffected as River, Ned’s nephew. But it’s TJ Miller (Cloverfield) who steals the show as Billy, Janet’s new live-in who is so perma-fried he can’t remember he’s not supposed to like Ned. I would happily watch a sequel about Billy and Ned and Willie Nelson (it would be titled Dripz Dropz and would feature an acid sequence).

Our Idiot Brother isn’t mandatory viewing but it’s a sweet, well-meaning comedy anchored by a stand-out performance by Rudd.

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2 thoughts on “Our Idiot Brother, or Paul Rudd can ACT

  1. Kim

    100% agree with you here. When I finished watching, I kept trying to think of another actor who would’ve fit for Ned. Honestly, it wouldn’t have worked with anyone other than Paul Rudd.

    The hand sanitizer bit was perfection.

  2. Pingback: Tonye Cole

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