An Idiot Aboard, by David Bax
Our Idiot Brother, the new film by Jesse Peretz, has a whole lot of pedigree in its cast, especially if you were to ask one of the cool, smart kids who’s ferociously on-trend when it comes to contemporary comedy. The movie includes Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Adam Scott, Rashida Jones, Zooey Deschanel, Steve Coogan and more, along with up and comers like Kathryn Hahn and T.J. Miller. It’s all the funny, middle class white people that middle class white people think are funny. Given the collectively dry and ironic personas of these actors, you’d be forgiven for thinking the film might be too precious to exist. You’d also be right.
Though the film at times seems to fancy itself a Noah Baumbach-lite family drama, more than a second’s consideration of any aspect of the premise or the movie’s reality reveals it to be as unsubstantial as a puff of cotton candy. Most of the characters appear to be in their 30’s but any reflection on how they could have continued through their lives for that many years behaving and thinking in the ways they do at the story’s start is maddening. How is it that they are all just wising up at this point? Especially when the person who haplessly leads them to their awakening is not some stranger who blew into town but a member of their family whom they’ve known their whole lives?
Rudd plays Ned, the titular sibling who is homeless after spending eight months in prison for selling marijuana. Floating from couch to couch among the neo-urban residences of his three sisters (Banks, Deschanel and Emily Mortimer), he becomes a bringer of mayhem but also, predictably, of truth. Again, the existence of Ned’s history with these characters, and their history with one another, is suspect. It’s telling that we spend 90 minutes with four siblings and never get a sense of who is the oldest or the youngest. They may as well be former co-workers who occasionally get together for a drink. The friends on Sex and the City had a more apparent and believable history in one episode.
This clear lack of caring on the parts of the filmmakers may not be laziness, though. There is evidence throughout the film that it may come from their take on the world. Our Idiot Brother has manipulatively dressed itself in the clothes of a humanistic comedy, the kind Woody Allen or Paul Mazursky would make. It’s actually almost thoroughly misanthropic. The film appears to hate its characters uniformly. The lessons learned from Ned are not framed as tough love but as pure punishment. Ned himself is not some sort of savant but is, for the most part, truly an idiot. We’re invited to laugh at him as often as we’re cynically expected to learn from him.
Those moments where Ned does briefly become a likable character are wholly attributable to Paul Rudd. In fact, most of the cast, being true actors in addition to skilled comedians, are straining at the ropes every chance they get, trying to make their roles believable. Jones is particularly winning, though that may be because hers is the only character who doesn’t do anything wrong, as far as the film is concerned.
Over the past decade, Hollywood studios have taken to relying on funny improvisers like the people in this movie to make mediocre movies better. It’s a tactic that fails more often than it works – and I predict we’re nearing the end of this practice – but here it is the saving grace. The funniest and most enjoyable stuff in the movie comes pretty obviously as the result of Rudd, Coogan, Miller and Hahn, among others, fucking around.
Which brings me to the thing I’ve been avoiding saying. I technically enjoyed myself for most of the movie. There’s enough pleasantly humorous bits spaced at regular intervals to make the experience amiable, perhaps even worthwhile. In that way, the film one would expect to see based on the cast listed above is essentially the film you’ll get. When it’s all over, however, the convivial elements were propping up something utterly hollow.