The Arty Semite

Friday Film: Paul Rudd as Holy Fool in 'Our Idiot Brother'

By Gwen Orel

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Nicole Rivelli/The Weinstein Company

I don’t know when I’ve seen a mean hippie on screen before. But that’s just one reason to see “Our Idiot Brother.” Another is Paul Rudd’s adorable, innocent character, Ned. He’s a latter day hippie we first meet selling vegetables at a farmer’s market. A cop flatters his zucchini, then coaxes him to sell him some pot. Oh, Ned. That good heart of his trumps his common sense every time.

Written by I.L. Peretz descendent Evgenia Peretz, with her husband David Schisgall, and directed by her brother Jesse, the movie is a hymn to family in all its idiosyncracies.

Ned’s not disabled, but you can see why his ambitious sisters label him an idiot — he’s as trusting as any Gimpel. He even confesses to his parole agent (Sterling Brown) that he got high in frustration, and when the officer says “I didn’t hear that,” repeats himself. Ned just doesn’t get sarcasm or meanness. “If you put your trust out there, people will rise to the occasion,” he affirms. The worst insult he can think of? “You know what? WOW.”

When Ned gets out of jail, he discovers that his mean hippie girlfriend Janet (Kathryn Hahn) has replaced him with meek Billy (T.J. Miller), and intends to keep his dog, Willie Nelson, too. Ned goes first to his mom (Shirley Knight) and then to each of his three sisters.

The first is the politically correct Liz, (Emily Mortimer), to whom he unwittingly reveals her snobbish British husband Dylan’s (Steve Coogan) affair. Then he bunks with the ambitious Miranda (Elizabeth Banks), a cosmetics writer trying to get a feature in Vanity Fair. Ned gets a scoop with her source but scuttles it too. Finally he moves on to Natalie (Zooey Deschanel), an indie, would-be comedienne bisexual, and causes a rift between her and her lawyer-lover Cindy (Rashida Jones).

Ned doesn’t mean to do these things; his intentions are always good. He even feels guilty when he can’t get into the spirit of a ménage a trios, and has to be reassured that being straight doesn’t make him homophobic. Ultimately, his guilelessness only reveals the pretentions and dishonesty of others, and though irritated, ultimately everyone realizes they’re better off for it.

Some of the characterizations are familiar in a Woody Allen way, but the smug hippie is new and fun. Ned is nearly too good for this world — he’s like his dog, all happy and tail wagging. All of the acting is pitch-perfect. The sisters are individuals but they also seem related. Banks aces the vulnerability in Miranda’s self-absorption; Mortimer captures Liz’s insecurities; Deschanel glows with a sweet silliness that comes closest to Ned’s gullibility. Shirley Knight’s somewhat silly mom echoes Ned’s trustingness, and I laughed every time Hahn’s bossy, word-wielding Janet opened her mouth. Miller’s blank Billy is incredibly endearing, too. The dog is wonderful. (no credit for him in my production notes).

But Ned is a great advertisement for the authentic hippie, a person for whom kindness is not even second nature, but first. Rudd catches his sincerity. Unlike I.B. Singer’s Gimpel, he’s smart, he’s just never shrewd. The movie looks wonderful, too, and the score (which includes Willie Nelson) keeps things bouncing.

We’re never told it’s a Jewish family, though there is at least one clue that it is. But it’s a family full of Yiddishkeit. In the end you love them all.

Watch the trailer for ‘Our Idiot Brother’:


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