Sundance ’11 Review: ‘My Idiot Brother’ Is Apatovian, Pleasureable & A Real Surprise

From our reviews correspondent over at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, James Rocchi.

My Idiot Brother,” directed by Jesse Peretz, is in many ways a hard film to rationalize here at the Sundance film festival. It is a glossy comedy, albeit with a thin layer of surface grime provided by harsh language, brief nudity and other mature circumstances to take a bit of the gleam off. It is about as “independent” as a premature infant on a respirator. It does not introduce new faces and talents, nor does it show us talents we know doing something different. Instead, “My Idiot Brother” assembles a comedy dream team for a story of family and forgiveness, shows us people trying to be good, trying to be more than themselves, and has amazing comedy bits ranging from huge sight gags and ba-doomp-boomp! punchlines, to razor-sharp sentences that boomerang back after they’ve whizzed by and silent expressions that convey volumes. It is a clear heir to the Apatovian comedy trend of emotional journeys along roads pocked with potty-talk potholes, and yet it also has as much heart as, if not more than, the best of Apatow’s work. It may be slender, but it is also a sheer delight.

Ned (Paul Rudd) is an organic farmer in New York; bearded, beatific and blithely stupid, Ned’s gentle nature and sympathy for human suffering earn him a few months in prison when he sells marijuana to a cop. Not an undercover cop; one in uniform. The fact that Rudd can even come close to selling just how free-thinking, and un-thinking, Ned can be, is a high-water-mark of comedic performance. When released, Ned’s support system of girlfriend (Kathryn Hahn), home and dog are all stripped from him, and he crashes with his mom (Shirley Knight) and his three sisters — mom Liz (Emily Mortimer), stressed writer Miranda (Elizabeth Banks) and downtown bohemian Natalie (Zooey Deschanel).

You can catch glimpses of “Candide” in “My Idiot Brother” — Ned is a bit of a holy fool, longs to tend to his garden and is as out-of-place in our times as Voltaire’s Candide was in his. While Voltaire, it is true, didn’t get as much comedy mileage out of weed and bisexuality as Peretz and co-screenwriters Evengia Peretz and David Schisgal, it should be said that they do, in fact, have something to say about our times just as the French writer did for his. Ned is thick as an organic plank and given to plastic shoes and other indignities, but he has a kind heart, thinks the best of people, and exists as a hypocrisy-free zone that other people get dragged into. “I live my life … a certain way,” Ned notes, and if others do not, perhaps that says more about them than it does him.

The cast is stunningly impressive. Rudd is terrific (having previously worked with Peretz on the ugly-but-funny 2001 film “The Chateau,”), but Banks, Mortimer and Deschanel are all given plenty to make hay with. Knight gets a few scenes that are both sad and funny; Rashida Jones sparks as Deschanel’s girlfriend/lawyer/life partner; Steve Coogan is all pretension, philandering and smarm as Mortimer’s horrible husband; T.J. Miller plays Ned’s unlikely ally in his mission to retrieve his dog, Willie Nelson; Adam Scott is Banks’ neighbor and possibly-more-than-friend.

If “My Idiot Brother” were just funny people being funny, it would be a far lesser film. But it’s about people being people — making mistakes, getting it wrong, trying to put it right. And Rudd’s work as Ned takes a fascinating turn in the one scene where Ned’s blank Zen calm and optimism do crack during a Charades game, resulting in his lashing out at his sisters. (At the time, you think it’s a good scene; after the film, you realize that it’s an essential one.) Fraught with nudity and sex and drugs, it is a decidedly adult film about feeling like you are not quite an adult, no matter what your age. The dialogue is full of backhand compliments and full-force-serve insults, and the ping and pop of it all is as sparkling and harsh and intoxicating as a strong rye-and-ginger.

Playing Ned’s parole officer, Sterling Brown (who is a new face, at least to this writer, and, frankly, deserves much, much more work based solely on this performance) explains to Ned that the State of New York “…encourages you to reflect on the choices that brought you here.” At the time — and with Brown’s delivery — it’s a funny joke. The true pleasure of “My Idiot Brother” is that, in time, it sounds like good advice — not just for Ned, and not just for his immediate family, but for all of us. “My Idiot Brother” may or may not be your idea of what Sundance means, but as American comedies go, it’s a welcome pleasure and a real surprise. [B+] – James Rocchi

Leave a comment