Like a great shining beacon of hope in the Mean-Spirited Comedy Summer of 2011, Our Idiot Brother boasts a heartfelt message delivered through Paul Rudd’s unfiltered, socially retarded but almost preternaturally good-hearted Ned. Director Jesse Peretz (who also directed Rudd in The Ex and 2001’s little-seen The Château), working from a screenplay by Evgenia Peretz and her husband David Schisgall, delivers a breezily paced comedy enlivened by a top-notch “indie” cast. With only a clichéd third act to run down the film’s merits, Brother deserves much praise for taking the road not traveled and avoiding glorifying an ego-driven, potty-mouthed protagonist.
Ned is, for all involved, something of an idiot savant who’s neither idiotic nor particularly learned, rather just out of touch with the fast-paced lives of his three very different sisters. When Ned’s moral code lands him in jail after selling pot to a uniformed officer, he is released for good behavior and returns to his farm only to find that former girlfriend Janet (Kathryn Hahn) has moved on to new flame Billy (T.J. Miller, who absolutely steals scenes with a proper pause and slurred diction). The dialogue between Ned and Janet immediately sets the scene for what could potentially be a been-there-done-that tromp into stereotype zone, with the hippie-of-yesteryear brother showing his family how to live a carefree life. Luckily, the film has more on its mind than that – and the screenwriters know that that concept has been wrung out and hung to dry, so they rarely make fun of the fact that Ned leads an almost stupefyingly simple existence.
With his tail between his legs and his beloved dog Willie Nelson in the care of Janet, Ned flees back home to his non-judgmental mother and three sisters - Miranda (Elizabeth Banks), a career-obsessed writer with a looming Vanity Fair piece; Liz (Emily Mortimer), a career mom with a baby daughter and a son whose ascension into private school ranks is critical to her husband Dylan (Steve Coogan); and Natalie (Zooey Deschanel), a free-spirit etching out a comedy club routine while pondering her relationship with Cindy (Rashida Jones). Ned soon tires of sleeping in his childhood bedroom and shuffles from sister to sister, each more reluctant than the last to take him on.
Why Our Idiot Brother works is simple to see from the moment the extended family sits down at the table and launches into multiple conversations. The dialogue is speedy and barbed in the way that you’ve surely heard family members take shots at one another – and the cast is more than game. This lived-in feeling helps elevate the familiar familial structure and make Ned’s incursions into each woman’s lives have genuine stakes, so when he inadvertently speaks the truth, the repercussions are real and can’t be fixed by some third act comedy magic. The three sisters will be permanently altered by the end of the film, far from the carefree boys of Hangover 2, where the ending basically suggested that responsibility was just an adult sham and you could be a childish party animal as long as you had some backbone.
Rudd’s performance is definitely one of his best, combining equal parts earnestness to do the right thing and a genuine belief that putting faith in others will yield good results – his Ned feels like a human being and at a key moment in the film, Rudd’s penchant for moving well between comedy and drama pays off in a major way. Coogan plays up the Brit factor, and fans know he can disparage with the best of them. Banks, Mortimer, Deschanel, and Jones are all solid but this sort of fast-paced bickering is something they’ve all had experience with and they do it well – each is granted a revelatory moment to reexamine their lives after Ned has wreaked havoc and while no one shines quite as brightly as Rudd, without the cast backing him, Ned might not be so easy to relate to and in the end, so moving in his compassion and carefree ways.
In the end, Our Idiot Brother is a misnomer – a judgment that’s far from true and passed on a good man too soon.
Our Idiot Brother opens in the U.S. on Friday and currently has no U.K. date scheduled.