Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Aug 26, 2011 5:28 pm 
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Our Idiot Brother, an insipid and implausible family comedy, is minimally saved by the charm of Paul Rudd, the star. He plays Ned, a naively honest and gullible son and brother, a bearded, long haired slacker hippie type (with the emphasis on type) whose messy truthfulness disrupts his three sisters' lives. Ned's goofs bring chuckles, but it's not so much fun to observe the venality greed, bossiness, and ambition that dominate the sisters and their men. Some have accused this movie of misogyny. But what's so great about the guys? All the portraits are dipped in a little acid. Well, satire is fine, but here, it's hard to see what the writers, David Schisgall amd Evgenia Peretz, are getting at other than to poke fun at a very scattershot collection of foibles and conventions.

The idea that chaos can lead to redemption lies at the roots of comedy and the enactment of some such process seems to be a vague intention of Our Idiot Brother. But this movie hasn't enough of either chaos or redemption. There's not really enough of anything -- not even laughs. Paul Rudd usually plays a character who's good-natured and full of smiles. Carrying that to the level of borderline retardation leads nowhere interesting. A man who never gets mad and is too dense even to get hurt is ultimately hard to sympathize with, because he is invulnerable. Ned is an artificial and unconvincing conceit, not a person, and Rudd doesn't even always wear the disguise completely. When he's with the sisters he sometimes flashes a knowing smile -- suggesting he's onto the game and not really the dullard he seems. He also isn't quite a slacker, or a real hippie. What is he? The character hasn't been thought through. He's as much in drag as Joaquin Phoenix in I'm Still Here. Ultimately the purpose of Ned as a conceit stays fuzzy. It's never really clear whether Ned's naivety should be mocked or admired.

Ned rolls out his gullibility immediately while working at a rural organic produce market. He believes a cop (Bob Stephenson) who says his request to be sold some dope is not a ruse. It is a ruse. Ned sells the cop the dope. He goes to jail. When he gets out, he finds himself homeless and jobless. His mean hippie girlfriend Janet (Kathryn Hahn) has dumped him for the gangly, equally goofy, but not so nice Billy (T.J. Miller). She won't let Ned live or work on the farm anymore. Unkindest cut of all, Janet has taken over Ned's beloved retriever Willie Nelson, and will not return him.

Ned perforce must now spend time with his mother (Shirley Knight), who is relatively kind and decent among the ladies; and successively with his three sisters, starting off with Liz (Emily Mortimer), a weak and deluded mom with two kids and a philandering filmmaker husband (Steve Coogan); moving on to Miranda (Elizabeth Banks), a pushy, unscrupulous magazine writer; and thence to Natalie (Zooey Deschanel), a lesbian, maybe, but unable to commit to her female partner Cindy (Rashida Jones). What Ned discovers, unwittingly, about Liz's husband's misbehavior disrupts the marriage. His involvement in a story Miranda is doing for Vanity Fair brings out scandalous information about a celebrity that calls for the libel lawyers. He reveals some of Natalie's (inadvertent?) straight behavior and that antagonizes Cindy. Ned is a great success with Willie Nelson, though robbed of that joy; in the event, he works well with Liz's little boy River (Matthew Mindler).

Rudd indeed performs wonders in making Ned's stupidities seem more natural than annoying. Ned's honesty brings out the petty jealousies, prejudices, manipulations, and dishonesties of his siblings and their significant others. Obviously Ned is a classic Wise Fool, a man whose simple talk reveals more truths (and goodness) than the chatter of the wiser folk around him. Only the writing isn't good enough or the urban Greater New York setting appropriate enough to give this role and this function real resonance. The variety of problems highlighted and solved and the different weaknesses of the sisters and their men don't follow any logical order.

Our Idiot Brother's already dubious structure crumbles with a series of little happy endings for each of the sisters, whom we have grown to dislike and would just as soon see punished. It over generously provides Ned with a new and wonderful girlfriend in the final scene. And it winds up with a series of unusually feeble outtakes alongside the closing credits.

Our Idiot Brother was a poor choice for Paul Rudd -- not the first time, as Armond White rightly remarks in his review, that the actor has allowed his considerable gifts to be squandered. As White says, Rudd has done well in roles that smartly reworked the Cary Grant comedy for a post-feminist age, such as in I Love You Man, Role Models, Diggers and Clueless. He is a superb comedy straight man, just a little goofy but also attractive enough to be seen as sexy and desirable. Pushing the goof this far does nothing for his subtleties, even though he does not descend into crudeness, and indeed gives nice little turns to every scene. Rudd is a smoothie hiding inside the slacker look and unsexy hair, just as a decent, sharp comedy is hiding somewhere inside this unfocussed mess of a movie.

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