‘Our Idiot Brother’ is indie comedy-by-numbers

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Our Idiot Brother
Written by David Schisgall and Evgenia Peretz
Directed by Jesse Peretz
USA, 2011

When is an indie not an indie? According to the Independent Spirit Awards, all it takes is a budget that falls short of the $20-million mark to qualify for that status, but while you’re watching something like Our Idiot Brother ($5 million, in case you were wondering), the distinction can seem meaningless. Here’s a movie that, while intermittently amusing, feels just as test-marketed, assembled by committee, and carefully calibrated for easy consumption as any Hollywood contemporary – just aimed at a slightly more “discerning” crowd.

Paul Rudd stars as the titular figure, a bearded, pathologically agreeable pseudo-hippie named Ned, who winds up in jail for a spell after selling pot to a uniformed policeman. Following his release, his three sisters – Miranda (Elizabeth Banks), Liz (Emily Mortimer) and Natalie (Zooey Deschanel) – react with differing levels of weariness. Miranda, a Vanity Fair with a perhaps-too-caring neighbor (Adam Scott), uses him for odd jobs, which winds up placing her in a professional bind. Liz is the dedicated homebody, saddled with a pretentious prat of a husband (prattery expert Steve Coogan) and a stressful home life, and hardly needs the added stress of an overgrown child in a house with two conventional ones. Natalie is enjoying a stable relationship with her girlfriend Cindy (Rashida Jones), but Natalie’s wild-girl tendencies threaten to upend that unit as well – unless Ned can patch things up, of course.

Brother‘s obsessive sense of inclusiveness is a key part of the feeling of prefabrication. Ned’s three sisters are entirely distinct in terms of career choices, living situations, sexual orientation, and ideology, and are all even further removed from Ned than they are from each other. As a result, they never feel like a genuine family with a shared history; instead they feel more like a viewer-sensitivity checklist. The fact that the family is made up entirely of the superstars of television comedy and indie dramedy doesn’t help matters, either; Banks in particular feels wasted and seems to be operating in 30 Rock autopilot. Having Joes and Deschanel as a couple reeks of geek wish fulfillment; again, this would not have been with the right execution, but the pairing never feels remotely real.

Still, Brother is not a total loss. Rudd does fine work as Ned, toning down his natural snark levels in order to effectively portray a genuinely likeable hero. Though they don’t get enough scenes together, Mortimer and Coogan are the film’s most believable pair, succinctly capturing both sides of a rapidly failing marriage. For all the rote plot points at work, Brother does manage a few wry laughs, many of them courtesy of supporting player TJ Miller, whose forbidden bromance with Rudd feels like the foundation for a funnier movie. Mostly, though, Brother is perfectly happy to leave stones unturned and feathers unruffled, having left no discernible impression in any particular direction.

Simon Howell

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