In its best moments, Jesse Peretz’s Our Idiot Brother (The Weinstein Company) has the translucent sparkle of one of those French comedies that chronicle the romantic follies of attractive, cultured young people. This little movie isn’t a fully accomplished farce—it veers toward sentimentality—but the fact that Peretz even gestures in the direction of farce is somehow cheering. It indicates that there’s room in the current landscape of American comedy for that venerable subgenre, alongside the knuckle-dragging dude comedies and cutely glib rom-coms that currently dominate the screens.
Ned Rochlin (Paul Rudd) is a biodynamic farmer so guileless and trusting that he sells a bag of weed to a uniformed police officer. (To be fair, the cop’s “just between us, bro” act was a clear case of entrapment.) After he serves his time, Ned leaves jail to find that his girlfriend (Kathryn Hahn, nailing the passive-aggressive hippie type with precision) has been cheating on him and, worse, won’t relinquish custody of Ned’s beloved dog, Willie Nelson.
The dazed Ned bounces from one couch to another within his large, troubled family. He has three sisters: Liz (Emily Mortimer) is a stay-at-home mother of two who’s married to a successful scoundrel (Steve Coogan). Miranda (Elizabeth Banks) writes for Vanity Fair; ambitious and aspirational, she refuses to consider dating her lovelorn scrub of a neighbor (Adam Scott). And Natalie (Zooey Deschanel) lives with her awesome girlfriend (Rashida Jones) in a loft packed to the rafters with bohemians, but can’t commit to either a partner or a sexual orientation.
Though one of Ned’s sisters does snap at him to “grow up,” his problem isn’t really one of immaturity. He’s not a dumb-and-dumber, afraid-to-commit dude type. Ned’s more of a holy fool, the kind of person who’ll not only count a pile of cash on the subway but hand the bills to a stranger to hold while he attends to another task. Naive and unaffected to a fault, Ned keeps blundering into situations that hurt or embarrass his sisters. When he inevitably finds himself in trouble again, will they be there to help him?
I was not just amused but moved by Ned, a more nuanced variation of a character Rudd often plays: the easygoing stoner, like the surf instructor in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. (The other common Rudd role is the Jack Lemmon-esque straight man of I Love You, Man.) His Ned—a simple, dopey guy who enjoys playing charades with his family and misses the hell out of his dog—is a slight comic exaggeration of a person we all know: someone who, annoyingly oblivious though they might be, always attributes the best intentions to other people. When Liz and her husband kick Ned out for disobeying their rigid rules about parenting, he loyally defends them to another sister: “They have their own way of doing things.”
Ned’s gentleness toward his sisters’ human failings is echoed by the filmmakers’: Though all three sisters act in petty and self-destructive ways at times, they don’t come off as villainesses (with the possible exception of Banks’ Miranda, who’s pretty unrelievedly awful). Their mother, played by Shirley Knight, should have been given at least one substantial scene, and it would have been interesting to know what happened to the Rochlins’ father (though honestly I was relieved to be spared another lumbering dad-son backstory). The script was co-written by a couple—David Schisgall and Evgenia Peretz, who is the sister of the director—and while it strays into overly broad satire, the writers have a sharp ear for the way siblings can hurt and betray each other with a single word.
I can’t quite account for why the whole of Our Idiot Brother seemed to me greater than the sum of its admittedly modest parts. Maybe it’s just nice to see a comedy that’s about something other than “Will these guys get laid?” or “Which one will she marry?” For most of the film—nearly all, in fact—Rudd’s character is not forced by the story to go a-courtin’. There are no sprints through airports or huge laugh lines or grossout set pieces. Yet this movie has a charming sunniness about it, not only thanks to the perma-grin-wearing hero, but because the New York settings, as shot by Yaron Orbach, are suffused in a lovely natural light. “Your rhubarb is gorgeous,” the cop tells Ned in that first scene, just before putting him under arrest, and we can’t help but agree. Our Idiot Brother has a way of placing the viewer (at least this one) in a Ned-like state of stoner bonhomie. It’s all good, man.