Friday, December 23, 2011

Catching up with 2011: Our Idiot Brother

The first of many reviews where I attempt to get caught up with this year's movies. 

If I were in charge of handing out year-end awards for 2011, Paul Rudd would get Best Actor. Like an episode of “Parks and Recreation,” Our Idiot Brother is, to say it very plainly, a warm film that just plain made me feel good while I was watching it. Paul Rudd is the main reason why as Our Idiot Brother made me smile throughout its wonderfully brisk 90 minute running time thanks to the performance of the year. Here’s a Sundance film that seemed, based on the posters and ad campaign, as if it were going to illicit the usual “meh” response I think of whenever one of these types of movies comes out (the Little Miss Sunshine complex). However, despite first-time director Jesse Peretz being a little ho-hum with how safe he directs, always making sure that the film feels very Sundance-y, he wisely allows his cast to take control of the movie to create one of the warmest movies I’ve seen in a long time; there isn’t a cynical bone its body. It’s so nice in this era of nastiness that permeates from every recent comedy that a film can just exist and observe its characters without a hint of irony or mean-spiritedness.

Look, I’m not averse to those types of movies; in fact, some of them I much like, but it’s so refreshing when a movie like Our Idiot Brother comes around that it’s warmth and earnestness kind of washes away just how problematic some of the film is. There could have been a lot more here, but that would have required the filmmakers to extend the film’s running time, and I think of one of the film’s great strengths is its ability to drop us right into this family and allow us to bask in how everything just seems normal and comfortable for this family and then to know when to call it quits; it’s so rare for a comedy to clock in under two hours these days that any comedy that is short almost scores immediate points in my book. But there’s more to the film than that. All of the archetypes are here for Peretz and company to revel in their quirkiness a la Wes Anderson or the coldly mock their idiosyncrasies a la Noah Baumbach or to paint the portion of New York that the film takes place in an unflattering way so that we laugh at how silly these hippies and tight-asses are instead of understanding where they come from. Now, that last part makes it sound like Our Idiot Brother is up to a lot more than it really it and even though it may not be that type of movie, it’s one of the best movies to be released under the usually off putting title of “Sundance Movie.”

The reason to see this movie, though, is Rudd. He’s always been good in movies like Role Models as the cynical asshole or as the lovable loser like in The Shape of Things, but here he plays a character that at any second could turn into caricature except that he doesn’t allow it to happen. With every smile and “Aw, man” there is a risk of Rudd going too far off into spoof, but it’s amazing how he never falls into that trap. Even the earnestness at which his character spends a large amount of time trying to get his dog (named Willy Nelson, which has a wonderful payoff by film’s end) is infectious. Just like the characters in the movie, you feel good about being around this character. I recognize elements of Rudd’s character in some of my friends, and I love that his performance so wonderfully captured the eternal idealism without a hint of snark thrown in. This also isn’t some loopy, weed-smokin’ smile guru; the character is more fleshed out than that: a person who is perfectly contempt with their life’s path and where it has taken him.  That is what is so amazing about Rudd’s performance, so when he finally earns his “big” moment during a game of charades where he explodes in anger – and has a bit of a breakdown – at his sisters for their detached attitude towards the family game, it doesn’t come off as false as it would other films because we like Rudd so much and we’ve been willing to follow his character and believe in his character up to that point. It’s natural – and the right choice – for the film to end on Paul Rudd smiling.

The film’s tone – and all of the cast ranging from Rudd (obviously) to Rashida Jones (especially, both because she’s always hilarious and she’s not bad to look at) to Elizabeth Banks and Adam Scott (one of my favorite actors right now) to the always-hilarious Steve Coogan – is just spot on and reminded me of the way I felt after I watched The Kids Are Alright or Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist: two films that aren’t similar in any way except for the fact that I felt happy – elated really – when I was done watching them. Our Idiot Brother is made with the same intent: it’s not a film that’s trying to say anything deep or profound; it merely drops us in the middle of these people’s lives (it’s nice to see a movie about people in their 30s) and allows us to see how comfortable they are in their routines as their brother interjects his refreshing – and sometimes maddening – brand of honesty into their routine. There should be no surprises how the film ends (hint: all of his sisters have problems and Rudd affects their lives for the better, causing them to – gasp! – reevaluate their life choices); however, the film still works because the filmmakers (and cast) show restraint in not allowing the usual plot elements that trip up countless Sundance films to derail what they wanted to do. Just as Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist didn’t waste time having characters comment on New York music and nightlife for 20-somethings, so too does Our Idiot Brother not waste time commenting on organic farming, weed, lesbianism, or other elements that usually make up these kinds of movies because the characters have been living with it for so long. That’s the refreshing thing about this movie aside from Rudd’s performance: it allows the characters to act like they should act instead of commenting on things they would have no reason to still be commenting on.  I have a lot of affection for this movie despite its many flaws. Will I remember this movie in ten years? Probably not, but it’s one of my favorite movies of the year thanks to Paul Rudd.


  1. Nice review. Paul Rudd is terrific as the loveable, good-hearted, naive Ned. His warmth makes this a feel good film, but the annoying sisters take their toll and nearly ruin my Rudd buzz.

  2. Dan O.

    Thanks for stopping by. Yes, Rudd is amazing here and really elevates the rather ordinary material to something warm and refreshing.

    Yeah, I think I tolerated the women in this film because it seemed like normal behavior for these characters. They were playing up to certain stereotypes, sure, but I never felt like the movie was commenting on how annoying they were. Maybe it's because I had just finished seeing 50/50 -- a film that has a very nasty, limited view of women...which is par for the course for a Seth Rogen movie -- before I wrote this review, and I was willing to give the female characters in this film a pass. However, I still think that the Rashida Jones and Elizabeth Banks characters were at least well-acted stereotypes, hehe.

    Thanks for the comment!

  3. It is flawed for sure Kevin, and while I guess I don't quite like it as much as you on balance I'll admit it does have it's moments, and to look for deeper meanings in the slice-of-life focus would be unfair and irrelevent. I found myself more involved in thge film than I could possible have imagined.

    You frame the vitues here marvelously.