Our Idiot Brother

My mother gave me the scowl when I mentioned The Boy and I were going to see Our Idiot Brother. Momma has a very limited range of comedy she approves of which completely excludes anything involving Stooges, Marx Brothers, Abbot and/or Costello, Lewis (and possibly Martin), Mel Brooks, Woody Allen (though she liked the Paris thing), anyone who was ever on Saturday Night Live (except for Gilda Radner and Jane Curtin), or anyone who looks like they might have been on SNL.

She particular hates “stupid” comedy. So Will Ferrell is right out.

I mention this because the trailers for Our Idiot Brother apparently play it as a dumb Ferrell-style comedy which it most assuredly is not. Not really a mystery: Those dumb comedies draw in the teens and make a lot of money, and this sort of gentle, realist kind of comedy aimed at an older audience does not.

This movie is more in the mold of, say, a Simon or a Being There. (I don’t know why I decided to pull two 1980 movies out for comparison but there it is.) That is, it’s a fish-out-of-water story (like Thor or, as a character coyly comments, The Guard). But it’s a particular genre of FooW story, where the character is an innocent, trusting, pure soul in a dark, cynical world. In Simon and Being There, the innocent takes on messianic qualities, but Paul Rudd’s Ned is nothing so grandiose, which makes this movie very watchable.

The innocent in these movies tends to cut a wide swath through the other characters’ lives, as his goodness tends to reveal the corruption they wade in, having a tendency to then blow those fragile lives apart, and in this case, it’s Ned’s poor sisters who are this victims.

Our movie opens with Ned selling pot to a uniformed cop. Not really selling. The cop begs him for it, playing for Ned’s sympathy and Ned freely gives. The cop then insists on giving him money which Ned reluctantly takes. Next thing you know, Ned’s in jail. Theme song, title, credits. (Actually, I don’t remember if they did that there, but the could’ve.)

This shows up a bit of a problem, of course: How does Ned get to be 42 and not have had this happen so much that he doesn’t get cynical, or at least aware enough to not fall for tricks like this?

But it’s Rudd who’s 42, maybe Ned’s only supposed to be in his 30s. And lucky. And…look, just roll with it.

After eight months of prison (model prisoner, inmate-of-the-month) Ned tries to return home to his girlfriend and his organic farm, but she’s moved on. Which is to say, she’s taken his farm and gotten a new boyfriend (TJ Miller of Cloverfield and How To Train Your Dragon in an amusing turn). Also, she won’t give him his dog, Willie Nelson, back.

And so, this is really a story of a man trying to get his dog back. Which is the sort of story my mom would like, if she’d ever go see it.

Ned visits his sisters in the manner of a Big Bad Wolf, except that all three have built their lives of straw. Settled-down Cindy (Emily Mortimer, Shutter Island) is married to insufferable sleazeball documentary director (Steve Coogan), and both are working hard to insulate their older child from anything fun or boy-like, forcing him to do ballet while he really wants to do karate.

It doesn’t take long for Ned to be a bad influence on the boy or uncover the sleaze, leading to a short stay with sister number two, Miranda, played by a brunette Elizabeth Banks (who was Paul Rudd’s love interest in Role Models). Miranda is struggling at Vanity Fair after landing an interview with a hot celebrity who doesn’t want to dish about her personal life. Meanwhile, she and neighbor Jeremy (Adam Scott of The Great Buck Howard) have the hots for each other, which remains unexpressed since she’s a bitch.

I mean, not to put too fine a gloss on it.

Miranda is particularly unlikable, but Banks does a good job with this somehow. You should despise her for a lot of reasons, but somehow there’s something at her core that seems redeemable.

After her, Ned ends up staying with the sexually chaotic Natalie (Zooey Deschanel, who played Rudd’s wife in the short “House Hunting”), who is hooked up with Cindy (played by Rashida Jones, who played Rudd’s wife in I Love You, Man). She thinks it’s love but she’s, well, a slut. A recovering slut, anyway. By the time Ned’s actually staying with her, he’s managed to potentially ruin and save her life as it is.

Normally, I really find Deschanel appealing but not here. She plays an unfunny, foul-mouthed comic.

Honestly, though, none of the three sisters are particularly attractive, which is the point. They tend to take out their self-made frustrations on Ned, who rolls with it mostly, but suffers because he doesn’t know all the rules about lying to get what you want or to not rock the boat.

An enjoyable, surprisingly mature flick that will not do very well precisely because it’s not a slapstick fest and also (significantly) because it’s been marketed that way, apparently. It is a little sleazy, of course, but at least it appears to suggest that people shouldn’t be that way.

It works, at least for me and The Boy, precisely because Ned isn’t cruelly mocked in a way that the audience is encouraged to join in on. We could all be a little more Ned-like. Also, the ending is satisfying in an unexpected way, with a nice little closing to the story.

Not sure if mom would have liked it, though.

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