Judd Apatow‘s smash hits of “The 40 Year Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up” (not to mention the countless other successful comedies stamped with his producer tag) have spawned a good handful of imitators but few ever get the formula right. What Apatow does so well — evidenced as far back as “Freaks & Geeks” and “Undeclared” — is effortlessly find true character moments in the midst of even the raunchiest gags. For example, in “The 40 Year Old Virgin” when Andy returns home after his “bag of sand” gaffe and walks around his house yelling in frustration, it’s both hilarious and true — we’ve all had those moments where we’ve said or done something completely mortifying that we can’t change. And Apatow excels at building his stories in a way that makes the usually large ensemble of players feel effortlessly real, with their choices and reactions organically born from situations that arise. That influence is clearly stamped on Jesse Peretz‘s “Our Idiot Brother” a film that takes an Apatow regular in Paul Rudd, surrounds him with a great ensemble, and strives admirably but unevenly to replicate the comedic and dramatic tones Apatow does so well.
When we first meet biodynamic farmer, hippie and all around totally chilled dude Ned (Rudd), he’s been busted selling weed to a uniformed police officer, living up to his titular adjective. Fast forward eight months, and he’s now out on good behavior and hopes to return home to resume his life on the farm only to find his girlfriend Janet (Kathryn Hahn) has moved on, and is now shacking up with Billy (a hilarious T.J. Miller). Kicked out of his former house, with Janet keeping his beloved golden retriever Willie Nelson, Ned hightails it to the big city to start over, with his first pit stop at his Mom’s (Shirley Knight) house. But he soon finds himself orbiting the homes and lives of his three sisters: Miranda (Elizabeth Banks), an ambitious, calculating writer for Vanity Fair; Natalie (Zooey Deschanel) an artsy lesbian in a relationship with lawyer Cindy (Rashida Jones) and Liz (Emily Mortimer), the harried mother of two married to stuck-up Brit documentary filmmaker Dylan, played by Steve Coogan (a sadly underdeveloped part that pales in comparison to the strikingly similar character played by Lee Pace in “Ceremony“). And of course, it isn’t long before Ned is getting over-involved in each of his sister’s lives, mostly by accident.
If that last paragraph of character summaries seemed a bit much to take in, it’s indicative of one of the main problems with “My Idiot Brother.” The script by David Schisgall and Evgenia Peretz is simply overstuffed with both plot and story, to the point where we wish one of the sisters or numerous subplots had simply been dropped, as there is enough here for a couple of individual movies. Miranda is looking to move up the food chain at her magazine even if it means tossing her personal morals out the window; Natalie is having troubling with her not-so-clearly defined sexuality, while Liz is suffering from a marriage in the throes of a deep crisis. We haven’t even gotten to Adam Scott‘s role as Jeremy the upstairs fuck-buddy/quasi-boyfriend of Miranda’s or Liz and Dylan’s hopes to get their son River (Matthew Mindler) into a good school. The result is a film that often feels like a string of loosely tied-together vignettes, rather than a cohesive portrait of a family dealing with an errant, but loveable, black sheep.
Which brings us to Ned, who is played by Rudd with an easy amiability that is charming, but also leaves us undecided as to whether he’s simply good-natured or just, well, an idiot. As Ned notes during a key moment in the film, he believes that if you treat people as if they always act on their best intentions, they will rise to meet your expectations. It’s a noble approach to life, but while for the most part it seems that Ned is just a natural people person, there are other, harder to believe moments (such as when he tells his parole officer about getting high) that make you wonder if he actually lacks basic common sense. There is a sprinkling of these brief scenes throughout the film that prevent Ned being anything more than a hippie caricature. And in a final act moment in which Ned shockingly and angrily explodes, we are still so unanchored by the whimsical but flimsily drawn character, that it seems even the screenwriters aren’t sure to what to do and so they have the sisters give some fairly unconvincing expository dialogue to explain what happened.
As the film rolls on to its conclusion, it’s telling that the most emotionally resonant scene has nothing to do with the sisters, or their relationship with their brother, but instead is entirely focused around Ned and his dog. For all the woes that Ned puts his sisters through, their arcs are neatly tied up in a handy closing scene/montage while several other characters and threads are left noticeably dangling. Given that nearly half the scenes/gag lines from the trailer are absent, “Our Idiot Brother” — much like an Apatow film — seems to have been crafted in the editing bay, and has come out a little misshapen. While individually many scenes are warm and good-naturedly humorous, they lack the collective tissue to hold them together. One great scene involving Jeremy and Ned assessing girls in a café for the latter to hit on is a perfect example of a hilarious stand-alone moment between two characters that leaves us wanting more of the former, though he’s ultimately just a stopping point on Miranda’s already too-thin arc. You almost wish “Our Idiot Brother” were pitched as a HBO series instead so we could get a full season with these characters.
Because while “Our Idiot Brother” is flawed, it’s also easily and effortlessly entertaining. Ensemble casts don’t get much better than this, and they often elevate the film; a lesser cast would’ve made its weaknesses all the more apparent. Rudd’s charm goes a long, long way in making the multi-threaded story a breeze to navigate. But its pleasures are temporary and fleeting, and the ultimate moral — about being honest with yourself and those around you — is rather facile and something that we would expect from a movie like “I Don’t Know How She Does It” (which trailered before the film) rather than from a film that boasts the kind of talent that can take comic material to unexpected places. And perhaps that’s the biggest disappointment with “Our Idiot Brother” — it never takes the risks the you want it to and in playing it safe, it locks up its true potential. [B-]