OUR IDIOT BROTHER. Starring Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel and Emily Mortimer. Directed by Jesse Peretz. 90 minutes. Rated M (Coarse language, sexual references, nudity and drug references).
The Russians have Chekhov’s Three Sisters and Dostoievski’s The Idiot, classic characters who reveal self-centredness (the sisters) and ingenuous goodness that can be taken advantage of (the idiot). Of course, it is a bit of a stretch from Russian drama and literature to a 90 minute Hollywood movie for the multiplexes, but it does indicate what this film is trying to do at a very popular level.
Whether it succeeds or not depends on the performance of Paul Rudd as our idiot brother – the ‘our’ being the three sisters. Rudd can be an engaging screen personality even when he is in broad comedies and even crass comedies. He is very engaging here and makes Ned, a rather naive and agreeable middle-aged man, a man who can be generous to others, believes that other human beings (despite so much evidence to the contrary) are good and trustworthy, worth the benefit of the doubt. Director, Jesse Peretz, has commented that Ned does not use irony as a weapon. At times, he is unwilling to believe in bad behaviour even if it is right in front of him. He is also a believer in the simple life – loves ordinary work, loves his dog (Willie Nelson, the dog, not the singer, though he appears on the soundtrack), is a great and playful uncle to his nephew. Actually, it’s a wonder he has survived so far – and we see him right at the beginning selling marijuana to a cop in uniform who tells him a sob story about how he needs it and Ned is touched – and arrested, and jailed.
If you want to see human nature at its mundanely unpleasant, you have only to look at the three sisters and Ned’s former girlfriend. They are selfish and self-absorbed. We remember poor old Lear and his selfish daughters, though here is no Cordelia here. Ned, out of prison, is shoved off by the girlfriend (Kathryn Hhan who doesn’t like but keeps Willie Nelson), stays with his sympathetic mother (Shirley Knight) and then with each of the sisters. Miranda (Elizabeth Banks) is a go-getting journalist and a control freak with her boyfriend (Adam Scott). Natalie is a would-be stand up comic with a girlfriend and some complications with an artist (Hugh Dancy). Liz (Emily Mortimer) is the nicest. She is in a marriage where her fickle documentary maker husband (Steve Coogan showing again how effectively he can do hypocritically unpleasant characters) who have a politically correct agenda for bringing up their son.
Needless to say, Ned embarrasses them and they move him on. Where can he go? Is goodness catching? Has he a future? Can the sisters change and face themselves and look beyond themselves? Americans like happy endings – they offer some kind of hope, even if temporary.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out 3rd November 2012.