Review: Paul Rudd headlines the painful and funny ‘Our Idiot Brother’

“Our Idiot Brother” is a film that wrestles with tone, sometimes unsuccessfully, and it often goes broad at moments that might work better if played more honestly, but it has a great cast that seems willing to play ugly.  That may surprise audiences who are there to see a more overt comedy, but it also makes “Our Idiot Brother” something more than has been advertised, something with more ambition, and it is obvious that director Jesse Peretz is interested in more than cheap laughs.

Expectation can be a difficult thing to manage with a movie, especially when advertising promises you something other than the film you end up seeing in a theater.  In a post-Apatow world, you sell “Our Idiot Brother” as a wacky film about Paul Rudd driving his sisters crazy, and on a very surface level, that is what this film is.  But the script by David Schisgall and Evgenia Peretz is aiming at something more difficult than that, and there are some very tough observations about the way we deal with our families as both children and adults here, and it feels like the cast is struggling at times to figure out exactly how real they’re supposed to play this.

The film opens with Ned (Rudd) selling weed to a uniformed cop, not one of the smartest moments in his life.  After he’s released from jail, his former girlfriend Janet (Kathryn Hahn) refuses to let him return to the co-op farm where he lived with her and their dog Willie Nelson, and he has no choice but to fall back on his family.  He has three sisters, each one wrapped up in their own lives, and one by one, he approaches them for help.  Ned is a force of nature, though, this sweet, amiable guy who leaves chaos in his wake without meaning to.  He tries staying with Miranda (Elizabeth Banks), a type-A personality who is struggling to make her mark at Vanity Fair as a writer.  Ned wades into the hard-to-define friendship between Miranda and her neighbor Jeremy (Adam Scott), and it’s like a Jenga game.  They’ve got this thing that they have built between them, and it’s very fragile, mostly dependent on never quite revealing how much they care about one another, and Ned just plows right into them.  When he tries staying with Natalie (Zooey Deschanel), his free-spirit sexually-adventurous sister, he ends up detonating her long-term relationship with Cindy (Rashida Jones) in a number of different ways.  Same thing when he spends time in the home of his sister Liz (Emily Mortimer) and her husband Dylan (Steve Coogan), a totally-full-of-crap documentary filmmaker.  Ned doesn’t mean to shake up their lives.  All he wants is a place to sleep and his dog, which Janet won’t let him have.  Everything else is just a side effect of Ned’s inability to lie or disguise his emotions at all.

It’s appropriate that Ned is desperate to get his dog back, because Rudd almost plays Ned like a golden retriever.  He’s unflappably sweet, cheery when there’s no reason to be, and he really does want to please the people in his life.  Even when people are overtly awful to him, Ned just rolls along wrapped in this sort of blissful fog.  I’ve known a few Neds in my life, and Rudd gets the type right.  The place where the film gets tricky is in the way it portrays his sisters.  I think the movie is trying to depict these women as complex and wrapped up in the adult roles they each play, but without the innate charms of Mortimer, Banks, and Deschanel, these three characters would be next to impossible to like at all.  They all treat Ned badly, and it’s casual abuse.  They rarely show another side to the characters, so it’s hard to root for them at all.  It’s one of those things that I understand as a writer… you want to show that these women have all embraced roles that make it hard for them to identify with Ned, who has no guile and no ambition and no room in his heart or his head for negativity.  But they’ve been pushed so far in the other direction from him that they just seem sort of horrible as human beings, to a degree that’s tough to take at times.

The cast, across the board, does very good work, though, and Peretz does manage to find a tone that works for much of the movie.  There are some big genuine laughs in the film, and I liked the resolution of things enough that it erased some of my hesitations about the movie.  The film looks good, and it has the same shaggy energy that made “The Chateau” (an earlier Rudd/Peretz collaboration) such a low-key pleasure.  I don’t want to oversell “Our Idiot Brother” to you, because it is flawed, but it’s never dull, and there’s enough about it that I like that I would ultimately encourage you to give it a try.

“Our Idiot Brother” opens this Friday.