Given its title and the summer’s trend towards crassness, you might assume that Our Idiot Brother would feature its star, Paul Rudd, embarrassing his movie-siblings in the tradition of Hangover 2, Horrible Bosses and The Change-Up. The movie’s appearance in the studio dumping ground of late August doesn’t do much to encourage optimism, either.
But this gently cunning comedy about family ties includes no humiliating moments of public regurgitation or defecation. Rudd plays Ned, an organic farmer who just got out of prison after selling pot to a cop in a uniform. (The guy asked nicely.) Returning to his farm, he finds that his dreadlocked ex (Kathryn Hahn) has replaced him with an even more daft and malleable boyfriend (T.J. Miller). Ned, not ready to move in with his fluttery mom (Shirley Knight), then alternates between the Manhattan residences of his three sisters, depending on who is the least irritated with him at the moment.
Our Idiot Brother is both daffier and more amiable than a Woody Allen film, but the sibling filmmakers (Jesse Peretz directed and his sister Evgenia Peretz co-wrote the screenplay) have concocted sort of a Ned and His Sisters. Liz (Emily Mortimer), who’s married with kids, has the home that’s the most spacious but the least fun. Miranda (Elizabeth Banks), an ambitious but untried writer at Vanity Fair (where Evgenia Peretz is a contributing editor) has a decent couch but little patience. Total bohemian Natalie (Zooey Deschanel) shares a place with her girlfriend (Rashida Jones, adorable in over-the-top butch outfits) and many others; the freewheeling atmosphere is the closest match to Ned’s usual digs, and he’s lucky to get an air mattress. Even Natalie thinks she’s more together than Ned, but his presence — his inability to be anything but genuine — create change in all of the siblings’ lives. The brother they’d all written off as hopeless has something to teach them, and likewise Rudd has a gift for getting the audience on his side.
Ned is not exactly a Chauncey Gardiner figure, but he is what some might call too good for this world. (When he catches Liz’s nasty documentarian husband, played by Steve Coogan, shooting an interview with a beautiful Russian ballerina in the nude, Ned accepts his word that it’s a technique to get her to open up about her past.) The movie crafted around Ned is a bit of a shaggy-dog story, struggling with the climax and coda, but the company is so pleasant and the cast so endearing that other flaws are easy to forgive. There’s no sense of a constant straining for laughs, making a nice change from the desperation of this season’s gross-out comedies. There’s even some wisdom to be found here and there. When Liz gets mad that Ned has exposed her son to violence via The Pink Panther, Ned explains, “Little boys fight. It doesn’t mean he’s going to grow up to be a frat boy rapist.” Not such an idiot after all.