Paul Rudd and Elizabeth Banks in "Our Idiot Brother." (Nicole Rivelli / The Weinstein…)
You can thank Paul Rudd for the natural high that keeps "Our Idiot Brother" floating along so amusingly.
This amiable, if underachieving comedy, is about just how much the truth hurts. First cut is the idiot brother — that would be Rudd's organic-farming, dope-smoking, not-a-care-in-the-world Ned. Soon nursing bruises are his three overachieving sisters, an eclectic bunch nicely wound into a frenzy by Elizabeth Banks, Emily Mortimer and Zooey Deschanel.
Things get underway at a rural farmers market with a classic no-good-deed-goes-unpunished moment. Ned shares his pot stash with a cop — despite the uniform (and funny even though the scene anchors those hard-to-miss trailers). When Ned emerges from the jail time that minor infraction bought, his losing streak continues. The girlfriend (Kathryn Hahn) won't take him back, and worse, she's intent on keeping the dog.
But really that's just the windup. All of Ned's compassion, unfiltered honesty and genuine love of mankind is about to be unleashed on his family. It's a case of boundless goodness wrecking havoc, though one could argue it's sometimes too much of a good thing.
Off-screen, the film is just as much a family affair. Directing is Jesse Peretz (2006's "The Ex" with Jason Bateman), whose comedies tend to fall on the loosey-goosey side. His sister Evgenia Peretz, a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, and David Schisgall, her documentary filmmaker husband, co-wrote a screenplay filled with riffs on Vanity Fair and documentary filmmaking. They do their best work, however, with whimsy, or at least that's what I'd call the decision to tie a crucial plot point to a very huggable golden retriever named Willie Nelson, whose wagging tail is usually accompanied by clever cuts of the real Willie Nelson's songs.
The movie is defined by various, very recognizable types of people. Ned's sisters are basically good folks who've been sidetracked by ambition and the high expectations of their individual New York City niches — the Brooklyn brownstone mommy-track, the West Village's stylish smart set and the Bushwick bohemians. Banks is Miranda, a writer for Vanity Fair desperate to break out of the cosmetics/beauty trenches to do some serious journalism for the magazine. Mortimer's Liz is making a career out of minting her children to PC perfection while her marriage to a pretentious documentary filmmaker (Steve Coogan) is fraying. Deschanel is Natalie, a free spirit increasingly tethered to reality by her relationship with hipster/attorney Cindy (Rashida Jones). For the most part, the actresses manage to represent clichés without becoming ones.
Ned, looking for all the world like a '60s hippie throwback outfitted with a bad wig, is there to keep easing things on down the road. Though there is a certain predictability, there is fun to be had at other people's expense, primarily as Ned unwittingly exposes the naked truth. And the truth is that humans are most often tripped up by their own foibles.
The film has enough of a subversive sensibility that it was popular with the Sundance Film Festival crowd. The ending has been changed since then to tidy things up a bit (making it neither better nor worse). But Peretz's filmmaking style stays the course, as languid as the guys who smoke dope on-screen.
The comedy isn't always as crisp as it should be, but Peretz has the perfect partner in crime in Rudd. The actor has an uncanny ability to create characters that feel completely devoid of avarice, angst or anything unseemly. There is nary a worry line on that brow, and I don't think it's Botox.