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Movie Review: Our Idiot Brother

August 26, 2011
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The newest entry in the “wise fool” series of literature, which includes Forrest Gump, Being There and of course Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, Our Idiot Brother aims to give us some laughs and teach us lessons too, about what things truly matters in life. The wise fool genre being primarily a didactic one, it comes as no surprise that the story and its characters present in highly schematic form.

Ned is the name of this Idiot, and he is played by heavily bearded Shawnee Mission West alum Paul Rudd as the love child of Jeff Bridges’ The Dude from The Big Lebowski (a semi-wise fool, with his admonition that we just “abide”) and the genial, gentle, maddeningly oblivious Peter Sellers’ Chance the gardener in Being There. At the start of Our Idiot Brother, Ned is also a gardener of sorts, a biodynamic farmer peddling his shining rhubarb at the local farmers’ market, when, due only to his kind heart, he is entrapped by an evil cop and lands in the slammer.

In prison, like Gandhi, he only burnishes his sainthood, beloved by fellow inmates and prison guards alike for his pure goodness. Once released early for good behavior (natch), however, he finds himself unexpectedly homeless and jobless, thrown out on his ethnic-print-shorted keester by his shortalls-rocking, dread-locked, hypocritically passive-aggressive, peace-talking girlfriend Janet (Kathryn Hahn, who does a hilarious hippie-righteous).

Thus Ned finds himself in the grand Long Island house of his mother, and thence bouncing from sister to sister. The sisters are a collective portrait of of women on the verge of nervous breakdowns and strongly in need of moral correction, send-ups of particular female stereotypes, each played by the actress you’d expect: hard-driven, hard-bodied, ruthless career woman Miranda (played, of course, by Elizabeth Banks, who has made this territory her own); disheveled, harried, hyper-scrupulous helicopter mother Liz (Emily Mortimer, in full brow-furrowed mouse mode); and moppet-cute, sexually confused commitment-phobe Natalie (Zooey Deschanel).

The job of the sisters is to show how messed up each is, roll their eyes at and insult and belittle Ned for no reason at all, boil themselves into a fury at him toward the end of Act III, and come to their Ned-loving senses in the final act. This the three actresses do more or less well, Banks with the handicap of a ridiculous Cleopatra wig, as befits an angry power-grubber.

The story for Our Idiot Brother was written by the sister-brother team of Evgenia and Jesse Peretz, the children of legendary Nation magazine publisher Marty Peretz, and the screenplay adapted by Evgenia Peretz and her husband David Schisgall. The screenplay was immediately snatched up and then produced in record time, four months from greenlighting to end of photography. Jesse Peretz served as the film’s Director (a founding member of the band The Lemonheads, he has directed videos for Jack Black and the Breeders, Foo Fighters and The Lemonheads, and numerous commercials for Nike, Playstation and Ikea).

All these connections brought aboard a lot of talent, some thrown away: the beautiful Rashida Jones is nearly unrecognizable as butch cuckolded lawyer Cindy, Hugh Dancy is onscreen for all of 4 minutes as seductive artist Christian, and Adam Scott gets little more to do than smirk as Miranda’s adoring downstairs neighbor. Steve Coogan has polished his smug bastard routine to a blinding, twitching sheen, and had me howling at moments as Miranda’s slimy documentary filmmaker husband.

This being one of those Hollywood movies, Christian’s New York City art studio has the proportions of a space that would command about $8,000 per month in the real world, all from earnest figure drawings the likes of which haven’t seen the inside of a reputable art gallery in 80 years. And though Adam Scott’s sci-fi writer is both unpublished and unemployed, he lives by himself in a fairly spacious (but walk-up) apartment that would in real life be shared with three roommates.

What’s more, Miranda’s struggling staff writer at Vanity Fair struggles with her morals in a gigantic window-walled office that probably belongs to editor-in-chief Graydon Carter. She also keeps hundreds of dollars in her wallet at any given time, and is able to throw down bail for her brother without a thought. It’s actually a comfort to see that in film, at least, journalism is still such a glamorous career choice. Screenwriter Evgenia Peretz is a Vanity Fair contributing editor herself, so surely she’s aware that in actuality, journalismis about as viable a road to riches and power these days as lace tatting, at least for those less powerfully connected than herself, but filming Miranda in a grubby fluorescent-lit cubicle at work and a tiny railroad apartment in Brooklyn at home would hardly be in keeping with the overall broad wish-fulfillment gloss of this movie.

There’s always a suggestion of Jesus in these virtuous idiot fools, the gentle truth-sayer who teaches lessons and must then need move on when, as Ned says, with precious little irony, his “work here is done.” The movie is so busy insisting on Ned’s divinity that it stints on the women’s humanity. There are dropped and undeveloped storylines about Natalie’s problems with truthfulness and the mother’s similarity to Ned.

The last ten minutes are an embarrassment of bathos, in which the sisters must fawn over Ned and acknowledge the errors of their ways and beg him to stay. But leave the sinful city he must, and so back to the Woodstock-y hippie paradise town he goes. But first, to have the women do the dirty work for him and wrest back the dog from that bitchy ex-girlfriend. And then to his new life, in which he miraculously gains possession of a gorgeous Victorian on the main thoroughfare of the paradise town and begins his thriving new business. Apparently the only vocations wholesome enough for a virtuous man to follow are biodynamic farming, pottery making and candle dipping, so candle dipping it must be. In a final unfolding of revenge, the candle dipping concern has a surprising new assistant, one who worries, sweetly, about a candle he has made. Isn’t it too ugly to sell?

Oh no, assures Ned. There is no such thing as an ugly hand-made candle.

There is, however, such a thing as an ugly movie. And this is one.

 

 

 

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