There’s a scene in Our Idiot Brother where the titular character Ned, played by Paul Rudd, is exposing his sheltered nephew to the comedy stylings of The Pink Panther movies. It’s an interesting inclusion as the film, as the star of those movies, Peter Sellers, would draw acclaim for playing an idiotic character who was confused for a wise man in Being There. Rudd’s Ned is not a character on par with Sellers’ Chauncy Gardner, and Our Idiot Brother is nowhere near as interesting a story as Being There, mostly because Ned isn’t really an idiot. He’s just a trusting, kindhearted soul in a family full of self-absorbed people. He’s a guy who just wants to enjoy life and company of his dog.
As the title character, Ned’s plight really should be the center of the story. Arrested for selling pot to a (uniformed) police officer, Ned gets out of prison to find his girlfriend Janet (Kathryn Hahn) has moved on. Without a place to live, and with Janet insisting on keeping their dog, Willie Nelson, Ned is forced to move in with his family. He bounces from home to home, staying with his mother and eventually each of his three sisters, played by a talented army of actresses (Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel, and Emily Mortimer) who are unfortunately locked into flat roles that squander the actresses’ significant talents.
You see, before Ned even gets into trouble, we realize this isn’t Ned’s story. Through the opening credits it’s revealed that each of Ned’s sisters is living a pretty crappy life. Miranda (Banks) is a career-oriented gal who has a distanced friendship with her neighbor Jeremy (Adam Scott), Natalie (Deschanel) is a stand-up comedian whose only real support comes from her lesbian girlfriend (Rashida Jones in the most butch, unglamorous role you’ll ever see Jones in – a mark of solid performance but a definite waste of her inherent beauty). Unfortunately Natalie isn’t secure in that relationship. Finally, Emily Mortimer’s Liz is a mother of two who can’t even get her husband (Steve Coogan) to look at her with interest when she reveals her recent Brazilian wax, mostly because he’s having an affair with a young ballerina he’s supposedly featuring in a documentary. These are the screwed up relationship, made even worse when Ned enters into each sister’s world with his honest, trusting approach to life.
This really isn’t a movie about an idiot brother as much as it’s a film about three sisters who are so self-absorbed and dysfunctional that they find their brother idiotic for being less caught up in the perpetual drama that makes up their lives. That might be alright if each actress was given something of substance to work with, but these characters are flatter than an old vinyl album. It’s incredibly frustrating to watch some of my favorite actresses currently in Hollywood forced to give such boring, droll performances, playing absurdly blind characters when it comes to their own shortcomings and problems.
Paul Rudd unfortunately falls into a similar trap as his costars, although at least his role as the laid-back character tasks Rudd with a small challenge. It’s hard to believe a character could remain so optimistic about human nature considering his surroundings, but Rudd plays it well. Just as I was getting a bit tired of the shtick, however, the movie puts in one genuine moment – one scene that serves as a reminder of how brilliant Rudd can be as an actor. In that moment we see Ned as a flawed, damaged character who genuinely only wants the best for his own life and the world around him, and the rude awakening that he can’t control that. It’s a solid turning point for the movie, but unfortunately it is definitely too late in the story and serves as too little development after most of the film has locked these characters in one place. It carries the desired impact, but also left me wondering why more of the movie couldn’t feel as genuine and real as that one moment.
People hoping to see Paul Rudd in a stoner comedy will be largely disappointed by Our Idiot Brother as it’s nothing of the sort. This is a dramedy about one earnest soul in a family of shallow, uncaring people. Sure, to the sisters Ned is an “idiot,” but it’s not a title of any significance, especially once the audience gets to know the free-spirited character. While the movie assembles a phenomenal cast for its story, it may win the award for the biggest waste of a cast, as the story and the characters offer very little for the actors to work with. Ultimately, Our Idiot Brother is simply dissatisfying, particularly when there are other movies out there featuring bigger “idiots” (like Being There) that are so much more insightful and satisfying.