Ned (Paul Rudd) is the odd one out among his siblings. He has opted out of city life for small-time biodynamic farming. His three sisters are entrenched in New York. The oldest, Liz (Emily Mortimer), is immersed in mothering her 7yo son River (Matthew Mindler) according to Sound Parenting Principles, and is ignoring warning signs that her marriage to pretentious doco film maker husband Dylan (Steve Coogan) is dying from malnutrition. Careerist middle sister Miranda (Elizabeth Banks) is a journo for Vogue. The youngest, Natalie (Zooey Deschanel), is a hip young thang with a string of lovers in her wake, who seems to have settled down with lawyer Cindy (Rashida Jones), a stabilising force.
Ned elicits much eye-rolling within his family. His decision to look for the best in people is seen by his siblings as naïve to the point of stupidity, and indeed, his child-like trust often gets him into trouble. When he is sucked into selling his personal stash of dope to a uniformed cop as a favour, poor old Ned is rewarded with a stint in the clink. On his release, he discovers his place on an organic farm he shares with his girlfriend Janet (Kathryn Hahn) has been usurped by her new live-in lover Billy (TJ Miller). Far worse, she has taken custody of his beloved dog, Willie Nelson. Homeless and dogless, he is forced to seek temporary accommodation with his reluctant sisters.
Despite his best intentions, he is too honest for his own and everyone else’s good, wreaking havoc as he unwittingly lays bare the deceptions, devious games and hypocrisies that are seemingly an intrinsic part of life in the Big City (well, anywhere – let’s not buy too far into the pastoral myth).
It took me a while to overcome a sense of incredulity at Ned’s falling for the cop sting at the beginning of the movie. Looking for the best in people is one thing, but could anyone be that ingenuous? And calling his dog Willy Nelson – a bit too consciously cute n quirky, innit? What about emerging from months in the slammer not only apparently unscathed but full of cheer? It’s a comedy, sure, but you shouldn’t have to remind yourself of that, as I found myself doing early on. Hmmm.
Well, cynical ol’ moi. Wasn’t long before I was won over. It soon became apparent that this was not just another dumb comedy with an unlikely buffoon playing for laughs at its centre. There is an emotional truth and depth to Ned, and to the characters his disarming openness and guilelessness is contrasted against. This is the source of the film’s humour and credibility. Once you get on to that, it’s an entertaining and heart-warming ride.
The narrative and the course it pursues is not ‘realistic’, of course – but the issues explored along the way are real indeed, and speak directly to the unbalanced and spiritually unhealthy values that riddle contemporary urban life. Out of the inevitable ashes of chaos and ruin wrought by Ned’s litany of faux pas borne of his child-like honesty and take on the world, rises the equally inevitable phoenix of new order. All the characters have arcs, all end up a little wiser. Not so much formulaic as true to generic form. Very satisfying. Just what you want out of good comedy. What I want, anyway.
Paul Rudd gives Ned an irresistible charm, and the other performances are terrif, also. The script is well-written: tight but allowed to progress at its own pace, witty without digging too deep for ‘cleverness’, and adroitly interweaving multiple character-driven narrative strands.
All in all, a feel-good movie with heart – and a brain. Think The Kids Are Alright, Little Miss Sunshine, Sideways. If you enjoyed these movies – and I did – Our Idiot Brother is for you. I suppose you could say all these movies rate highly on the ‘W’ meter: well-written, well-performed, warming, witty and wise.
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