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Dungeon Bunnies


Our Idiot Brother
dir Jesse Peretz
90 minutes

Narratives about squabbling, intellectual siblings and the Judd Apatow crew of ageless male comedians both have their distinct appeals, but the uneasy contrasts at play in Our Idiot Brother mix together like chocolate sauce and horseradish. The film was co-written by Evgenia Peretz (with David Schisgall) and directed by Jesse Peretz, and the children of famous publishing figure Martin Peretz have much to say, it would seem, about the family dynamic, and seek to say it all loudly.

The film tells the story of Ned (Paul Rudd), a hippie who lives off the land before an arrest on drug charges forces him to live off the goodwill — or, at least, the largesse — of his three sisters. As an actor, Rudd is congenitally likable and the viewer is perpetually on this actor’s side: a good thing, as the script gives him remarkably little to do for much of the film’s running time.

Ned’s idiocy is frighteningly all-encompassing; he is befuddled by simple human rituals, unable to read the emotions of women he has known his entire life, and childishly unaware of the distinction between truth and lies, or between family obligation and family togetherness. Have the Peretz siblings met any of the neo-hippies currently selling organic food or toiling on farms? Asceticism in lifestyle tends to breed a keen, resentful understanding of humanity, not a gleeful disregard for its customs.

The lead character’s inability to read the number of dramas unfolding all around him yields a lot of Rudd’s sunny smiles, devoid of substance. Scenes involving each sister’s individual crises are ever derailed by Ned’s presence, as his obtuseness — perpetually three steps behind the other characters, and eight steps behind the audience — adds nothing to the film. (It does not help that Peretz seems not to have heard of the two-shot, perpetually and ineptly focusing on a single character and cutting short every conversation’s momentum.)

A film about three squabbling sisters, each in intellectual, career, family, and sexual crisis, exists. Its name is Hannah and Her Sisters. That film's plot has been rear-ended, here, by the endpoint of the frat-boy comedy vogue. Far more than a hippie, the stoned guy emotionally unavailable behind his grin that Mr. Rudd plays here is a frat boy.

What, then, of the sisters, whose narratives and whose lives Ned disrupts? The viewer remains intrigued as to how the delightfully flinty Elizabeth Banks, the watery Emily Mortimer, and the overprimped baby-doll Zooey Deschanel all came from a single genetic line, but their differences in physical appearance and acting style (Banks failing to conceal rage, Deschanel enunciating her lines as though she were a particularly sad ghost, moaning and gesticulating quietly from a dungeon on a different floor) fade away in light of their matching inability to deal reasonably with their own lives or with Ned’s presence.

Banks’ Miranda is a Vanity Fair reporter entrusted with a big story, during whose reporting she is forced, by a plot contingency, to enlist Ned as a chauffeur. Ned, of course, ruins the day — though he later stumbles upon great intel without realizing it (such is his way). Banks' talent, so often underutilized, is here overutilized. She’s annoyed! Grr! But Ned may, in fact, have saved the day! Sinister, conspiratorial look at no one! If the screenwriter Peretz’s impression of Vanity Fair reporting in real life is as scattershot as the sort of reporting-by-mood swing Miranda practices, one may be inclined to read the magazine a bit more spuriously.

Mortimer’s Liz, sporting an accent that tentatively taps on New York’s door before fleeing back to London, has a philandering husband (Steve Coogan) in a plotline that felt stale when Mia Farrow and Michael Caine acted it out in Hannah and Her Sisters. That film elevated the stock plotline with a near-poetic understanding of why people cheat, and why they stay.

This film, by contrast, casts Mr. Coogan’s Dylan as an unqualified villain and, of course, Ned as the moronic (idiot is too kind) interloper, who catalyzes dramatic motion by saying precisely the wrong thing about very obvious happenings he cannot understand. That Ned does precisely the same thing in the subplot in which Deschanel’s Natalie cheats on her girlfriend (Rashida Jones) is simply frustrating, and not merely because it further overstuffs this film with incident.

Ned’s stupidity seems less funny when it wreaks further havoc on the lives of characters who are all too able to ruin their lives independently. That would be marginally more dramatically satisfying — though Miranda and her sisters, in their derivative, self-manufactured crises that become the film’s subject, are less intriguing than Hannah and hers.

In the film’s dramatic high point — at which all three sisters coalesce into a three-headed blob of judgment and bitter recrimination while playing charades with Ned, a set of Furies unable to see that Ned’s actions only hastened their own fairly-unavoidable personal collapses — Ned explodes, his smile suddenly and without any warning from the script turning into impotent rage. His rage is unconvincing. Who could believe that a man who has not yet assumed the worst — or even the accurate and uncomfortable — about his three idle, sensation-chasing sisters has anything to say worth hearing?

Daniel D'Addario is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in New York. He is a writer for the New York Observer, and you can find an archive of his writing here.

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Reader Comments (1)

um, i don't think ned was an idiot. rather he was someone experimenting with how to interpret & interact with the world around him. foolishly so? perhaps. but i don't think it's nearly as cut & dry as you have made it.

at some point along the way, as ned explains himself, he made a conscious decision to give people the benefit of the doubt in the belief that more often than not they'll return the gesture. this doesn't always work out of course but it's basically a good natured attempt at the golden rule (do unto others etc). that in doing so he happens to reveal lies in his sisters' relationships, well, was that really such a bad thing? but even there i have to ask, was he really even at fault?

remember, it was miranda who actually told liz that her husband was having an affair, it was natalie who told ned she had already resolved the pregnancy issue with her girlfriend, and it was miranda who took advantage of her brother's honesty & then blamed him when he told the editor no. and that's why he blew up during the games of charades: they were all using him as a scapegoat for their own fucked up lives & he had had enough. tho i think the needle that broke his back, so to speak, was that his sisters were too self-interested to even let a seven-year-old enjoy a game of charades with his family. before then ned was 'okay' receiving the raw end of his sisters' self interest because he could deal with it, but not when it came at the cost of a child's joy. they should have known better etc.

but you know, i guess thinking about all of that isn't as fun as taking lazy pot shots at ppl you don't like or letting your reader know, multiple times, that you've seen a woody allen film

i guess i just feel like if you're going to engage a film in discussion & analysis, then you should actually, like, *engage* it. not just put together a quick list of personal pet peeves & refuse to care about what the lead actually had to say because, hey, if the the title screen calls him an idiot it must be so. no way the kids of some media dude could be working at a slightly deeper level, right?
September 9, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterstephen

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