I’m almost ready to get my Top Ten of 2011 list up, and for a long time I couldn’t decide which film was going to come in at #10, Our Idiot Brother or The Flowers of War. Then I saw a film a few days ago that’s going in the #5 slot, so the decision was rendered moot as both Brother and Flowers were bumped from the list altogether.
I guess you could say that Our Idiot Brother is a bit of a guilty pleasure. It’s technically rough around the edges, and doesn’t feature the kind of cinematic precision of The Flowers of War. Plus, comedy can be tougher to get a larger consensus on than drama. Apart from some drama alienating certain audiences if it gets too sentimental, drama is able to hit certain certain notes to which people generally respond similarly. But comedy can be more of a mixed bag and the response can vary greatly from individual to individual. Certainly there are people who just don’t find Our Idiot Brother or The Trip very funny. I happen to know of at least one of them. On the other hand, I have another friend who said that Our Idiot Brother made him feel glad to be alive and restored his faith in humanity.
The setup for Our Idiot Brother is pretty simple. Paul Rudd plays Ned Rochlin, a well-meaning and over-earnest hippie so determined to naively believe in the good in people that he sells some pot to a police officer in uniform claiming to be having a rough week. Ned goes to jail for a few months, and upon his release finds his hippie girlfriend Janet, who he lives with on an organic farm, has gotten herself a new boyfriend and doesn’t want Ned in the picture any more. After a brief stay with his mother, Ned is shuttled between each of his three sisters, played by Emily Mortimer, Elizabeth Banks, and Zooey Deschanel. None of them particularly wants Ned around or has the time to deal with him, so putting him up becomes a game of Ned-hot-potato. All three sisters are tightly-wound in their various ways, and the introduction of Ned to each of their living arrangements is a quick recipe for disaster. All three have incorporated some amount of compromise and lies into their lives, but Ned’s persona can’t exist around dishonesty, and in record time he manages to rip apart the central constructs of whatever they’re using to hold things together.
Paul Rudd is basically a national treasure at this point. He’s got the charm and charisma of a leading man, but the intelligence, wit, and comic timing of a character actor. There’s really no other actor who could slide into this role so well, or who can so instantly acquire audience empathy. Much of Ned’s journey is his desire to be reunited with his dog Willie Nelson, who his ex-girlfriend Janet refuses to give up. Not because she has any real love for the dog, but simply because she knows that Ned does. She’s mean and petty and vindictive, but hides behind a new-age, hippie philosophy that allows her to refuse any kind of moral or personal responsibility for her actions in life. Ned himself is like a big shaggy dog, floundering from place to place and trying his damnedest to always keep his head up. What he really wants is to be loved, for his family to love each other, and simply for people to treat each other with some common decency, honesty, and respect. But in this day and age, it seems too tall an order with everyone focused squarely on career ambitions, romantic insecurities, and daily routines. Rudd is so transparent and vulnerable that it’s impossible not to feel deep empathy for him; he’s the moral center in a world that can no longer make the time for such things.
And Rudd is surrounded by a very talented cast. The three sisters’ various romantic interests are played by Steve Coogan, Adam Scott, and Rashida Jones. Rashida Jones in particular is a revelation here as a somewhat greasy lesbian wearing wide 70s-style eyeglasses and knee-high knickers with her sports jackets. Kathryn Hahn plays Ned’s ex-girlfriend Janet, and T.J. Miller her new boyfriend Billy. Despite how much Rudd nails every moment and can simultaneously be hilarious and emotionally pained and raw, Miller manages to steal every scene he has with Rudd. As does Sterling K. Brown, who plays Ned’s parole officer and is constantly in a state of amazement at just how much Ned seems to be living on his own planet. But this isn’t the kind of high-concept Hollywood comedy where every funny moment hits some pre-ordained over-the-top comedy beat. Rather, the laughs come out of the characters and their situations, and the game cast cements everything in a very dressed-down and easy-going sense of realism.
The closest thing to big comedy set pieces are a few smaller escalations more firmly rooted in the circumstances of the sister’s lives. This and the more pedestrian cinematic approach of Brother means that it never starts to reek of the falseness of heavy-handed, big-Hollywood plotting. Like Ned, the film has charm and personality to spare, and though it can be slightly ridiculous and even a bit manic at times, it’s generally understated, emotionally honest, and heartfelt while being very on-target and consistently funny.