Originally Published in The Daily Free Press on September 7, 2011
There’s a fine line between brilliance and stupidity in screwball comedies because the genre gravitates toward absurdity. Absurdity yields laughs because it escapes normality but a grain of reality must persevere. Comedies fall flat when their insanity just doesn’t make sense. It’s too outrageous. The audience can’t suspend their disbelief – and the theatre is silent.
Too many of these humorless films occupy the silver screen today because big budgets and A-listers can overshadow and oversell a screenplay. Despite its all-star cast and perfect 90-minute package, “Our Idiot Brother” delivers. Despite its idiocy, it’s real.
Paul Rudd, centerpiece of several absurdist flops, redeems himself beautifully as Ned, a hippie, “biodynamic” farmer perfectly content with selling rhubarb at Farmer’s Markets in the New York countryside. His provinciality and naivety are established immediately, as he is tricked into granting some of his marijuana (free of charge) to a police officer who’s “had a hard week,” resulting in his arrest.
This outrageously stupid, but admittedly gracious, act defines Ned immediately as extreme on the spectrum of plausible reality The possibility of Ned’s existence, a man who “doesn’t live in the adult world,” is now conceivable. The audience’s disbelief is activated. Further absurdity is possible.
After eight months in prison, Rudd returns to find his equally free-spirited girlfriend Janet (Kathryn Hane) has taken over his dinky farmhouse and beloved dog Willie Nelson. And so, as many family members so often do, Ned begins to cycle residences between his three sisters, Natalie, Liz and Miranda (Zooey Deschanel, Emily Mortimer and Elizabeth Banks).
The familial frustrations that ensue are outrageous but they make sense. Ned exposes a nephew to the “violence” of The Pink Panther, much to the dismay of the oppressive Liz and her husband Dylan (a fantastically witty Steve Coogan). Ned tries to earn his rent by modeling nude, compromising Natalie in the process. His friending of a foreign philanthropist derails Miranda’s career. And ultimately, his frank candor devastates Liz.
Ned is outrageous, idiotic even, but the audience believes it. His first naïve act makes each exponentially foolish act and his ridiculously carefree demeanor believable, and somehow, reasonable. It’s not outrageous anymore – it’s a very possible reality.
But beyond its well-executed exposition, “Our Idiot Brother” is believable because we all have crazy and loving families. Personal plans are thrown off course because of a family member’s moral compass. Family needs outweigh the needs of one member. Idiocy is acceptable because, well, you’re family. “Our Idiot Brother” delivers because, well, it’s real.