The great "nature vs. nurture" debate rages on, with both sides periodically gaining or losing ground based on whatever new study has been released. The new comedy Our Idiot Brother wades into this discussion with the question: Are hippies born, or are they made?
If you look at the siblings at the center of Our Idiot Brother, the answer is clearly the latter. Paul Rudd plays Ned, a long-haired, trusting, perpetually positive biodynamic farmer who finds himself in jail after selling marijuana to a uniformed police officer. After being released and unable to move back to the farm where he lived with his girlfriend, Ned decides to accept the somewhat insincere invitations of his three sisters and comes to stay with them in New York until he figures out what to do next. Watch the trailer for Our Idiot Brother below.
Through Ned's sisters, it becomes obvious that Ned's blissful, relaxed attitude is not a product of genetics or childhood indoctrination. There's Liz, played by Emily Mortimer, a tense, overprotective mother who absorbs the dismissive, passive-aggressive barbs of her snooty documentarian husband, played by Steve Coogan. Elizabeth Banks plays Miranda, a harsh, ambitious writer for Vanity Fair who's willing to use dodgy tactics to land a big story. The youngest of the siblings is Natalie, played by Zooey Deschanel, a bisexual bohemian type who is trying to get her act together as she lives with a pack of roommates and her lawyer girlfriend, played by Rashida Jones.
One of the most enjoyable things about Our Idiot Brother is its reluctance to paint its characters as one-note caricatures. Ned's sisters are not necessarily bad or horribly screwed up -- they've simply drifted apart from each other (as many of us do) as they've become more absorbed with the duties, drama and ambitions of their adult lives.
The easiest thing to do with a character like Ned would be to paint him as some sort of noble, magical fool akin to Forrest Gump, a character whose childlike cluelessness and decreased mental capacity were disturbingly portrayed as a source of profound, simplistic wisdom. While Forrest was born that way, what makes Ned interesting is that his sunny view of humanity and his unfailing sincerity are not from genetics or upbringing, but are the results of conscious decisions. For whatever reason, Ned has chosen to live his life by a philosophy that requires him to be as honest, generous, and open as he can while choosing to always see the best in people. And as you might guess, it's not easy, especially when Ned's willingness to listen and his lack of judgment make him a depository for everyone's secrets, and we watch as Ned and his family struggle with the consequences of his beliefs.
Our Idiot Brother is nicely shot, avoiding the bright, flat sitcom lighting common in most comedies. The acting is great across the board, particularly the strong supporting cast of Jones, Coogan, TJ Miller as an agreeable hippy, Kathryn Hahn as Ned's ex-girlfriend, and Sterling Brown as Ned's parole officer. But this is really Rudd's film, which has found a terrific way to use and expand on the non-threatening niceness that often gets Rudd cast as a straight man.
Despite what the ad campaign for Our Idiot Brother says, the movie is not about how much better the world would be if we were all like Ned. It's more about how we should never become so self-involved that we're unwilling to be even briefly inconvenienced by a family member in need, especially one as well-meaning as Ned. That may not be a groundbreaking concept, but Our Idiot Brother is simply a small, light crowd-pleasing comedy that isn't trying to change the world, but has a lot of laughs, heart, and great performances. And there's nothing idiotic about that.
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