Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Jesse Peretz
Stars: Paul Rudd, Kathryn Hahn, Emily Mortimer, Steve Coogan, Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel, Shirley Knight, Hugh Dancy, T J Miller.
The rather politically incorrectly titled Our Idiot Brother is a mildly amusing and quirky character driven comedy about a well-meaning slacker who accidentally creates chaos for his three self-absorbed, highly-strung, selfish sisters. The film is full of such painfully personal incidents and observations about family dynamics and dysfunctional relationships that it seems partly autobiographical. However, it retains a genial atmosphere throughout, and never quite crosses the line to become mean-spirited or nasty.
Ned Rochlin (played to perfection by Paul Rudd) is a rather naïve, simple-minded, child-like (possibly autistic?) but well meaning hippie, a sort of 21st century Forrest Gump. He prefers the simple life, and is happy to grow organic vegetables on a farm with his hippie girlfriend Janet (Kathryn Hahn) and his dog named Willie Nelson. But his life is thrown into disarray after he is jailed after selling dope to a uniformed cop at a street fair. When he is released from jail, Ned finds that Janet wants nothing to do with him anymore. And she’s keeping Willie Nelson!
In desperation he bounces between the homes of his three sisters, inadvertently briefly ruining their lives in the process. Liz (Emily Mortimer, from Lars and the Real Girl, etc) is a neurotic housewife married to Dylan (Steve Coogan, cast against type), a pompous and obnoxious documentary filmmaker who has strict views on how to raise their young son. Miranda (Elizabeth Banks, from Zack and Miri Make a Porno, etc) is an aspiring writer hoping to land a job at Vanity Fair. However, Ned’s inadvertent rapport with her reclusive subject, a disgraced wealthy royal, threatens to derail her ambitions. And Natalie (Zooey Deschanel, in another of her offbeat roles) is a stand-up comic who is in a same-sex relationship with lawyer Cindy (Rashida Jones).
However Ned is incapable of lying and his tendency to blurt out the truth eventually causes a rift between himself and his sisters and their respective partners. All three sisters blame Ned for the mishaps in their lives, without realising it is their own desperation and unhappiness that has caused their problems.
Our Idiot Brother has been directed by Jesse Peretz, a founding member of the Lemonheads, who has made several interesting films since leaving the band. Peretz wrote the clever, edgy script with his sister Evgenia and her husband, documentary filmmaker David Schisgall. Much of the humour comes from the embarrassing and uncomfortable situations that Ned creates with his naivety and its vaguely satirical look sibling relationships. And Ned’s efforts to retrieve Willie Nelson provide the laugh out loud moments in a comedy that deliberately aims for more low key humour grounded in uncomfortable reality.
There are a few surface similarities between Rudd’s hopelessly clueless character here and his previous comedy Dinner For Schmucks, in which wealthy people used naïve and guileless characters like Ned for cruel sport and dinner entertainment. Peretz previously worked with Rudd on the 2001 comedy The Chateau, and the pair has developed a comfortable rapport that pays off here. Our Idiot Brother has obviously been designed as a vehicle for the charming Rudd, almost unrecognisable beneath a scruffy beard. He brings unexpected depth to his ingenuous character, and he essentially plays it straight, which adds to the humour of the film.
Mortimer, Banks and Deschanel are all excellent as Ned’s sisters, and their scenes together share a palpable chemistry. Shirley Knight is good as their suffocating, boozy mother. In a smaller undeveloped role, Hugh Dancy is wasted as Natalie’s artist friend, while T J Miller is strikes a false note as Janet’s guileless new boyfriend. Peretz has assembled a wonderful ensemble cast to flesh out the characters, most of who behave badly. They are initially an unlikeable bunch, but somehow during the course of the film they endear themselves to the audience.