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Dustin Putman

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Our Idiot Brother  (2011)
2 Stars
Directed by Jesse Peretz.
Cast: Paul Rudd, Emily Mortimer, Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel, Steve Coogan, Rashida Jones, Kathryn Hahn, T.J. Miller, Shirley Knight, Hugh Dancy, Adam Scott, Janet Montgomery, Sterling K. Brown, Matthew Mindler, Katie Aselton.
2011 – 96 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for sexual content including nudity, and for language throughout).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, August 10, 2011.
There is something curiously off about "Our Idiot Brother," a quirky, episodic indie comedy aiming to pass itself off as height-of-hilarity mainstream studio fare by The Weinstein Company. The actors, as reliable as they have proven to be in the past, look uncomfortable and hesitant, as if they haven't been properly directed on how to approach or understand their respective roles. Scenes come and go without natural beginnings and endings, each one weirdly rhythmless in its pacing and placement within the finished product. Establishing shots and typical filmic transitions are few and far between, with most of the picture set in cramped, claustrophobic interiors. The story rarely takes time to breathe or bothers to explore with any depth the key relationships that the movie is supposedly all about. What is left are some amusing situations and a lead performance better than it should be under the amateurish circumstances.

Ned (Paul Rudd) is an oxymoronic hopeless idealist whose innately good nature keeps getting him into trouble. Following a stint in jail after knowingly selling pot to a police officer who looked like he needed to take a load off, Ned returns to the make-shift farm he lives at with his trusty dog Willie Nelson and hippy girlfriend Janet (Kathryn Hahn) only to discover she's taken up with a new guy, the nice if lunkish Billy (T.J. Miller), and won't hand over his pet. After a brief stay with loving, overbearing mother Ilene (Shirley Knight), Ned shows up on the doorstep of eldest sister Liz (Emily Mortimer). He's great with her son River (Matthew Mindler), not so much with her British documentarian husband Dylan (Steve Coogan), who is cheating on her with one of his film subjects. No-nonsense middle sister Miranda (Elizabeth Banks), a budding journalist, next takes him in, but when he won't agree to corroborate an article she's written to her bosses, he's suddenly not her favorite person, either. At youngest sister Natalie's (Zooey Deschanel) flat, Ned sleeps in a blow-up raft in what looks like a grimy torture chamber. She's in a committed lesbian relationship with lawyer Cindy (Rashida Jones), or so Cindy thinks. When Natalie sleeps with cultish artist Christian (Hugh Dancy) and discovers she's pregnant, her decision to privately confide in Ned about her indiscretions doesn't go as planned.

Ned gets in hot water again and again, not because he does anything wrong, but because he is forever destined to believe the best in people (and is usually wrong to do so). Wayward and free-spirited, he drifts about with few goals and perhaps too much love in his heart. He's the kind of dude who feels bad about backing out of a three-way with a straight couple and kisses the other guy on the cheek as an apology. When he catches Dylan and a woman nude during what is supposed to be a documentary shoot, he goes along with Dylan's desperate explanation that he strips down to make his subjects more comfortable until Miranda puts the flimsy pieces together. Directed by Jesse Peretz (2007's "The Ex"), "Our Idiot Brother" is reasonably empathetic considering its tactless title, and in Ned is an unlikely hero who is winning in his gullible naïveté. His loved ones more than any career or material object are what mean the most to him, and he doesn't understand it when his three sisters don't see eye to eye with him. Paul Rudd (2010's "How Do You Know?") is solidly cast as Ned, emanating earnestness and later frustration at being the scapegoat for his siblings' problems. They might appear on the outside to have it all together, but they're arguably even more screwed up than he is.

Emily Mortimer (2010's "Shutter Island"), Elizabeth Banks (2010's "The Next Three Days") and Zooey Deschanel (2011's "Your Highness") are not nearly as well-served, their characters underwritten and just short of shrewish. They do love their brother and aren't completely despicable, but the screenplay by David Schisgall and Evgenia Peretz nonetheless paints them in broad strokes. Mortimer's Liz acts like she has it all together, but is in an empty marriage she's not ready to confront. Banks' Miranda is too stuck on herself to exhibit any outward warmth to those people around her, including the friend and neighbor she apparently has deeper feelings for, Jeremy (Adam Scott). And Deschanel's Natalie is simply a big question mark, a young woman who is adamant that she is a lesbian and in love with Cindy, but has sex with men and acts like she can barely stand to be touched by her girlfriend. It's like a setup to a payoff that was never written or shot. The rest of the supporting characters are even less fleshed out, though Rashida Jones (2010's "The Social Network"), dressed to look too much like a gay caricature, earns the film's biggest laughs in her confused, dismayed facial expressions as she simultaneously helps Ned kidnap his dog and learns that Natalie has been unfaithful and is with child.

"Our Idiot Brother" most closely reminds of 2009's "Everybody's Fine," which starred Robert De Niro as a lonely widower who decides to visit his three grown children (Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell and Drew Barrymore) scattered across the country. Transform De Niro into a spirited, shaggy-haired wanderer and his kids into New York-based siblings and they're virtual remakes. That earlier picture was cloying in spots and far from air-tight in its storytelling conception, but had an affecting undercurrent. "Our Idiot Brother" is lighter and more aimless; the narrative doesn't go anywhere special and ends up in a dull, pat, but upbeat place. It's a film that, simply put, is difficult to care for or get excited about.
© 2011 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman