There’s a damning smallness that’s impossible to shake from Our Idiot Brother, as if the film itself, knowing it doesn’t quite have the energy or verve to be a feature, keeps shrinking from the screen in quiet embarrassment. It’s not that the film is offensive, or awful, or even totally unpleasant to watch. It’s that director Jesse Peretz — working from script by his sister, Evgenia Peretz, and her husband, David Schisgall — makes the mistake of thinking that disconnected scenes, even cute ones, can become a movie if you string enough of them together. The film is infused with a mostly amiable laziness and a total lack of energy, as if the easygoing vibes put out by its protagonist, the latter-day hippy Ned (Paul Rudd), had rubbed off on the filmmakers. Giant swaths of Our Idiot Brother could be rearranged with no affect on the plot, which is not at all a good sign for a film that purports to have a narrative, however flimsy. The comic moments that actually work do so thanks to Rudd, who is effortlessly charming and easygoing, but there’s only so much that even a gifted comic like Rudd can do for material this shallow. Rudd’s presence and jovial atmosphere make the film hard to hate, but it’s hard to love, too. The final product is harmless but forgettable, and the obvious fun the cast had shooting the thing doesn’t really make the leap into your heart and soul the way Peretz seems to think it does. It’s a passion project without the passion.
Make no mistake: Rudd is his usual charming self. He’s been crushing it since his modern comedy coming out in 2001’s Wet Hot American Summer, yet rarely have his skills felt so wasted. Peretz doesn’t just want to make in which Rudd stars; he wants to make a movie that’s nothing but disjointed vignettes in which people yell at Rudd while he shrugs and does his best to act peaceful and dopey. Rudd’s easygoing nature becomes the movie’s only emotional touchstone, and the only thing in it that feels real. Rudd’s Ned is surrounded by a family that treats him as a problem that can never be solved, and after he gets busted for selling pot to a uniformed cop who said he was just having a bad week —Ned’s that naïve — he’s shuttled between his mother and three sisters like a disease. Sister Miranda (Elizabeth Banks) is a rising star at Vanity Fair trying to make her name with gossip-fueled profiles; Liz (Emily Mortimer) is a married mother with two kids who unironically scolds Ned’s attempts at helping her kid with lines like “We don’t celebrate those values”; and Natalie (Zooey Deschanel) is a maybe-bisexual drifter who’s either the world’s worst aspiring stand-up comedian or the world’s best sarcastic I’m-only-doing-this-because-I-live-in-Brooklyn performance artist. (Since the script doesn’t have the energy to give her anything resembling depth or a personality, I’m going to assume she’s trying to be a comedian and is just very, very bad at it.) There’s also Cindy (Rashida Jones), Natalie’s girlfriend who is a lawyer and wears chunky glasses, and Dylan (Steve Coogan), Liz’s husband who is a manipulative and thoroughly unlikable person. In this sea of cartoons, Ned stands out because there’s nothing else he could do.
Much of the film involves the women bouncing Ned between them, ignoring his quiet pleas that they live better lives, and talking incessantly but weakly about the non-issues they’re confronting. Even for a comedy, the stakes here are so low that they’re invisible. Characters drift through their mini-crises with maximum hysteria and minimum insight, after which nothing really happens. I wasn’t kidding when I said that you could rearrange (or, really, delete) whole chunks of the movie without removing any of its essential nature, because its essential nature is mostly empty. Miranda, for instance, finds herself at a crossroads when she’s asked to profile minor royalty but isn’t allowed to ask about the woman’s rocky relationship history. Ned, on the other hand, gets her to open up in casual conversation, leading to some ethically murky behavior on Miranda’s part as she folds some of Ned’s off-the-record info into her story. This is not a bad little wrinkle for Miranda’s story, and it’s a decent chance for the filmmakers to use Miranda’s professional selfishness as a springboard into some kind of change or recovery for her. But — and I am spoiling absolutely nothing here, trust me — aside from a tense meeting at with her editor in which Ned says the info he gathered isn’t for publication, nothing happens. She isn’t punished or rewarded, fired or promoted. She’s angry with Ned, but she’s been so condescending to him for so long that it doesn’t feel like a change. Schisgall and the Peretzes spent no small amount of screen time building that part of the story, only to set it gently in the water and let the current carry it away.
In other words, there’s nothing to hang onto. The film has some good moments, and Rudd’s able to bring laughs thanks to his command of body language and nuanced delivery. But the filmmakers can’t be bothered to have anything matter to the characters, which means the characters don’t matter to us. There’s one fleeting moment when a character becomes something other than an affable placeholder, and it comes toward the end of the film, when Ned, fed up with the way his sisters are acting cruel and self-involved, shouts at them during a family game of charades to just shut up and be kind. Ned’s otherwise perfect composure cracks, and he becomes a real man, a guy who loves life and happiness and just wants to do his best to communicate that to the people around him. He stops being groovy or whatever and actually looks human. But then it’s gone. Peretz abandons the moment and gets back to going nowhere.
Now, I realize I said the film was hard to hate and then spent 800 or so words doing what looks like hating it, but I don’t hate the film. Rather, I’m disappointed. The performers here have proven that they’ve got what it takes to be funny and to act in actual stories, and seeing them kept on such a short leash is a letdown. Rudd’s charm helps many of the jokes land, and he’s helped out by Banks and Adam Scott in a few situations, but those moments of relief aren’t enough to distract from the fact that nothing’s really happening here. Peretz hasn’t made a good movie, but he has made a lengthy something-or-other that stumbles into a few great bits. Rudd plays Ned as earnestly nice, and his blindered outlook lets him be sweet without sounding moronic. It’s obvious that no one has any ill intentions here, and that they all seem to genuinely enjoy making movies with each other. They’ve made a small-scale, forgettable film that’s the emotional equivalent of a glancing blow: It feels like something happened, but the sensation starts to fade immediately.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. He tweets more often than he should, and he blogs at Slowly Going Bald.