Paul Rudd's character Ned in Our Idiot Brother is the kind of guileless, selfless soul we all imagine we could be in our better moments, happy to help others and live as peacefully as possible. His sisters, on the other hand, are the selves we know we actually are-- selfish, misguided, intolerant and often downright mean. The conflict between Rudd and his family is what's supposed to make up the comedy of Our Idiot Brother, which takes fantastic actors and a lot of promising situations and squanders virtually all of it. It's not just the long stretches of the movie that go by without a single laugh-- that's OK for indies like this-- but how many jokes fail to land, and how much of the film just feels like a giant missed opportunity.
Rudd has proven over and over again that he's infinitely likable onscreen, and his puppydogish desire to please and be loved is the best reason to see Our Idiot Brother, especially since director Jesse Peretz and writers Evgenia Peretz and David Schisgall have built up a ridiculous series of caricatures to surround him. Ned kicks off the movie by getting thrown in the slammer for selling weed to a uniformed police officer, an idiot move that, in large part thanks to Rudd's performance, seems totally understandable in context. Eight months later he's set free but kicked off his farm by his bitchy ex-girlfriend (Kathryn Hahn, done no favors by the material) and forced to crash, one by one, with all three of his sisters, who are vaguely worried about the lack of direction in Ned's life but are far too self-absorbed to actually do much about it.
You see, each of Ned's sisters has problems in their lives that only he, with his unvarnished honesty and sense of childlike wonder, can solve. Liz (Emily Mortimer) is married to a philandering jerk (Steve Coogan-- great casting) and keeps her eight-year-old son on an insanely tight leash; Miranda (Elizabeth Banks) is pursuing her magazine writing career at the cost of all dignity while also stringing along her adoring next door neighbor (Adam Scott) as if they're "just friends"; and Natalie (Zooey Deschanel) is about to move in with her butch lawyer girlfriend Cindy (Rashida Jones, unconvincingly butch) but is clearly already freaked out by the commitment. We're told early on that Natalie's not actually gay, just bi-curious, and she spends a lot of time with a foxy artist played by Hugh Dancy… if you're filling in the blanks from there, you're already smarter than Our Idiot Brother thinks you are.
Peretz and his co-writers clearly know the many segments of well-off New York where the movie takes place, and occasional jabs at indulgent Park Slope parent culture, high-flying Vanity Fair offices or awful Williamsburg performance art ring very true, especially with Rudd's hippie character thrown into the mix. But the plot, which takes over especially in the packed and obnoxious third-act finale, just drags and drags, setting up conflicts that we can instantly tell how to resolve, and clashing Rudd against a set of three sisters who are so self-absorbed and mean they don't stand a chance at earning the audience's sympathy. Aside from Mortimer's Liz and Jones's Cindy, who are mostly victims of their terrible choices in partners, the women in the movie are awful people, generally undeserving of the happy ending Rudd helps them find. Even when Banks manages to establish a nice rapport with both Rudd and Scott-- who get one excellent, funny scene to themselves as well-- the character of Miranda is written with a remarkable lack of sympathy. Ned may love his sisters unconditionally, but the movie he's in is a lot less forgiving.
It's a shame to see Rudd, whose best performances often involve stepping back to let others take over, given a role that lets him hit it out of the park in a movie that never comes close to matching him. New Yorkers can get a kick out of seeing so much of our beautiful, silly city skewered, but it's hard to imagine what most others would get out of the movie beyond an overwhelming sense that they could have done better.