Count Our Idiot Brother among Paul Rudd’s poor choices—a select group of dumb to unbearable films including The Shape of Things, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Dinner for Schmucks that waste the actor’s estimable gifts. Rudd’s commitment to playing off-center characters who combine nerdiness with idiosyncratic charm has made him a new kind of romantic comedian. He takes the Cary Grant mantel into the post-feminist era, where masculinity shades easily into non-aggressive, quasi-gay traits—the hallmarks of Rudd’s best characterizations in I Love You Man, Role Models, Diggers and Clueless.
But the role of Ned in Our Idiot Brother falls short of Rudd’s usual New Male insights. As the slacker brother to three sisters who represent different contemporary anxieties (sexually confused Zooey Deschanel, careerist Elizabeth Banks and hausfrau Emily Mortimer), Ned is a kind of rebel. He dates a hippie chick farmer and loves his dog, named Willie Nelson. (“I’ve got a wonderful future behind me,” the real Willie Nelson warbles on the soundtrack.) Ned is such an anti-hipster he even sells weed to a cop, which lands him in jail and prompts his confrontation with stern social realities.
That’s right, Ned is either retarded or just a hopeless indie movie conceit. It’s obvious that director Jesse Peretz has asked Rudd to do a Lebowski. He has The Dude’s long-haired, bearded pothead look, and Rudd’s performance in Our Idiot Brother should have been as great a characterization as Jeff Bridges’ in The Big Lebowski. But Bridges and the Coen Brothers conceived an original figure. Here, Nedrick Rockland is a vapid conceit: He annoys some, charms others. He’s pointedly not a hippie but his innocence makes him an anachronism, a fool. (“Dude, do you have Tourette’s?” a perturbed character complains.) Rudd coasts on charm—and a blatant Bridges homage—because Ned lacks social roots. Peretz (directing a script co-written by his wife Evgenia Peretz and David Schissgal) uses Ned to absolve middleclass guilt by fatuously spoofing its vanity in contrast to Ned’s vague virtues. (Peretz writes for Vanity Fair, a detail satirized through Banks’ character.) Ned says, “If you put your truth out, there people will rise to the occasion,” but his faith is vague, a ruse. It contradicts his lovable uncle act (“He’s just a little boy. Little boys fight. It doesn’t mean he’s going to grow up to be a frat-boy rapist”).
The Peretzes try creating a modern icon without risking any genuine moral principles. Ned represents a specious P.C. saintliness that Rudd only occasionally pulls off, as in his characteristic show of chagrin when Ned apologizes for his inability to please a bisexual couple. (Later he’s assured, “Just because you’re straight doesn’t mean you’re homophobic.”) This film’s “doesn’t mean…” bromides prove the Peretzes’ sneaky moralizing; they don’t challenge bourgeois complacency, as Jean Renoir and scruffy Michel Simon did in the 1932 Boudu Saved From Drowning. Rather, Ned is smugly privileged. When the sisters rally and overstate his cause (“Nobody loves anything as unconditionally as Ned!”), the zero philosophy equals narcissism. Usually movies this slick and contrived have a shiny, Hollywood look, but Our Idiot Brother’s unslick look is dreadful. It lacks the professionalism of mumblecore. Frowziness is only acceptable if there’s greater realism and depth. Not only is Rudd’s charm wasted, Yaron Orbach’s smudgy images make everyone look grimy. In more ways than one, Our Idiot Brother is an eyesore.
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