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“Small in the Family”

Review: “Our Idiot Brother”

(for Christopher)

Grade: B (RENT IT)

IS HONESTY ALWAYS the best policy?

“Our Idiot Brother” answers that eternal question with a resounding YES though it stresses that truth is not without its casualties.  The engine of unflinching truth-telling is the film’s lovable and, yes, idiotic protagonist Ned Rockland (played by Paul Rudd in a Lebowski-like beard and hippie haircut).  When he walks in on his brother-in-law, Dylan (Steve Coogan), in the buff and cheating on his sister, he doesn’t beat the guy to a bloody pulp.  No, he sanitizes his hands with a squirt of Purell and goes about his merry way.  A more apt title would be “Our Naïve and Puerile Brother with No Conversational Filter,” but that wouldn’t exactly sell tickets now would it?

“Our Idiot Brother” is just the heartfelt comedy to break Rudd’s losing streak in a string of turkeys otherwise known as “Dinner for Shmucks” and “How Do You Know.”  As Ned, he brings a 90-minute smile to the face.  Watch as he joins Dylan, a smarmy filmmaker, on the set of a dance studio and, getting his plastic shoe wedged in the ballet bar, explains: “My Croc is stuck.”  Rather than playing the role with a meta-thespian’s wink to the audience, as if to say “How dumb is this guy?”, Rudd plays Ned with absolute earnestness and it’s the film’s recipe for un-self-conscious success.   See Ned bounce on a trampoline while sipping a juice box.  Hear Ned unsure of whether or not he has health insurance.  See Ned, working a farmers market at the film’s opening, give free fruit to children and accidentally sell pot to a uniformed policeman.   Oops.  The arrest means that Ned loses the farm – the organic farm – and sole custody of his golden retriever named Willie Nelson.  “Willie Nelson!” Ned exclaims as his pooch is packed into a copcar.  “It’s going to be okay Willie Nelson!”

Ned is the sort of lovable guy who, when angry, grumbles under his breath “Geez Louise!” and when really angry, exclaims: “Oh wow, I mean, wow!”  Rudd shows all the bygone tenderness required of him as Jennifer Aniston’s gay best friend in “The Object of My Affection” (1998) but not required of him in any of the Apatow raunch as of late (“Anchorman,” “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” et al).  Without Rudd, the comedy’s center cannot hold.

This is not to disparage the three actresses who play Rudd’s cosmopolitan sisters: a predictably half-awake Zooey Deschanel as the indie bisexual Natalie, Elizabeth Banks as the journalist Miranda, and Emily Mortimer as the panicky Manhattan mama Liz.  (Mortimer and the laser-eyed Banks have both taken hilarious turns as Alec Baldwin’s girlfriend on the NBC sitcom “30 Rock.”)   And there a few more strong women to keep Ned afloat, including Rashida Jones as Natalie’s girlfriend in Urkle glasses, not to mention Ned’s Chardonnay-swilling mother (Shirley Knight) and hippie ex-girlfriend Janet (Kathryn Hahn).  Not since P.T. Anderson’s “Punch Drunk Love” (2002) have we seen such an idiot savant – or maybe it’s just plain idiot? – surrounded by so many screaming sisters.  Why are such mighty matriarchies so seldom seen on screen?

The sisters in “Our Idiot Brother,” however, are clichés rather than characters.  Dylan’s wife, Liz, is as uptight as she is uptown and, worried that her son won’t be accepted into an elite elementary school, is covering familiar ground; Lisa Kudrow already nailed this social type in the underrated “The Other Woman” (2009) with Natalie Portman as a sympathetic homewrecker.  And speaking of homewreckers, Ned is something of one himself, but his systematic destruction of his sisters’ domestic bliss is more accidental than malicious.  As anyone with an idiotic sibling might sigh, they know not what they do.

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Speaking of siblings, here’s a poem I wrote for my own idiot brother:

Give a Bum a Beer: A Drinking Rhyme

Give that guy a beer, said he

Lowering my window without me

Asking.

Give that bum a beer? I asked

Without a glass?  Into a flask? He’s

Coming.

Yeah, just toss that guy a can

Good beer is like a lending hand for

Drinking.

Our radio rang “People are strange”

The man said:  Can you spare some change? I’m

Roasting.

How ‘bout a beer? my brother said

Right on, he grinned.  Better drunk than fed when

Struggling.

Thanks for helping a brother out

Instead of blind-eyein’ and drivin’ about, you’re

Sharing.

-          Boulder, Summer 2011