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Paul Rudd indie comedy Our Idiot Brother won’t leave well enough alone

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Paul Rudd is a good idiot.

Our Idiot Brother

Directed by Jesse Peretz

Opens Aug. 26

Our Idiot Brother does not entirely work, though it’s not for lack of ability or desire. The film, which stars Paul Rudd as Ned, a long-haired, bearded, earthy do-gooder who seems to inadvertently step on every landmine along life’s terrain, bears a palpable, almost sweaty sense of almost there, a desperate longing to will it to a finish line populated by plaudits and statuettes. Our Idiot Brother, however much even the audience may cheer it on to greatness, is just not built for it.

That’s a surprise, since, on paper at least, its DNA is strong. It’s studded with likable stars: Rudd’s put-upon sisters are played by Zooey Deschanel, Emily Mortimer, and a brunette Elizabeth Banks; their respective love interests are equally captivating, from The Office’s Rashida Jones to Party Down’s Adam Scott (who should be a much bigger star than he is) and Steve Coogan; even the wonderful T.J. Miller and Shirley Knight get in on the action.

Also promising is the film’s production company, Big Beach Films, a shrewd indie boutique whose one-film-a-year track record includes Little Miss Sunshine, Sunshine Cleaning, Away We Go, SherryBaby, and Jack Goes Boating. (Disclosure: This writer was an employee of Big Beach partner Marc Turtletaub once upon a time.) Even the writers, first-timers David Schisgall and Evgenia Peretz, and director Jesse Peretz, have fascinating back-stories. Schisgall comes from a documentary background, while Evegenia Peretz is a well-known Vanity Fair contributor. Her brother Jesse is a former member of the Lemonheads.

With all those interesting people behind and in front of the camera, perhaps it’s not surprising that Our Idiot Brother is heavy on situational ephemera but light on narrative thrust. The basic structure—vagabond miscreant waltzes into the lives of fuddy-duddies and changes them forever while himself finding a purpose—is so embedded in the cinematic conscience that it hardly needs any decoration if the filmmakers trust it enough. That’s a big “if,” though, especially with this kind of cast and crew, and so we’re treated to half-satire/half-sincere subplots involving biodynamic farmers, New Age-y parents and their constrained-by-liberalism child, a sexually fluid woman facing a pregnancy crisis, an up-and-coming Vanity Fair writer (naturally) struggling with her first meaty assignment covering a charitable royal, a documentarian having an affair with his subject, and, of course, Ned’s borderline-autistic ability to talk his way into jail. And there’s a dog, too, named Willie Nelson.

There’s so much to take in that it’s tempting to overlook the fact that the emotional center is so thoroughly neglected. Ned is so focused on mere survival—the film begins with his arrest and immediately cuts to months later, when he loses his girlfriend, the roof over his head, his job, and his dog in one fell swoop—that it’s never clear whether he’s invested in the swirling miasma of familial suck constantly surrounding him.

Still, Our Idiot Brother tries to win us, and when the filmmakers are able to sit in the pocket for a moment, plant the camera on Rudd and any one of his co-stars and just watch, magic happens. One scene, in which Scott’s character gives a snap-judgment rundown on the romantic possibilities of random women in a restaurant, allows for the kind of freewheeling banter we’ve come to cherish from Rudd, and Scott proves a dynamically witty match for him. Another shows him flirting with a visiting royal (Janet Montgomery), and we finally get a glimpse at the casual charm that appears to be his character’s only weapon against total destitution. Like the titular brother’s wish to de-clutter his life, audiences may yearn to see the film strip away the layers of stuff and let the guy be himself.

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