Over the years Paul Rudd has distinguished himself from peers such as Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill by frequently playing parts that are closer to the straight-guy roles rather than the overtly funny-guy roles, combining a natural sense of comic timing with genuine charm. Our Idiot Brother is an ideal vehicle for him since it is so essential that the audience like his character Ned Rockliffe for the film to work. Ned is a biodynamic farmer living an alternative lifestyle who after a run-in with the law and a break-up has to couch surf with his three sisters Miranda (Elizabeth Banks), Natalie (Zooey Deschanel) and Liz (Emily Mortimer). Despite constantly meaning well, Ned manages to dramatically intrude on all their lives to create strong resentment.
The core of what makes Our Idiot Brother work as well as it does is how Rudd’s likeability extends to the entire film. There is nothing mean about the humour nor does it rely on creating embarrassment to elicit the uncomfortable laughs. Ned is not destructively clueless to the extent that Steve Carell’s character was in Dinner for Schmucks, nor is he the slightly mean-spirited childlike character that Zach Galifianakis often plays in films such as Due Date. In fact, very early on it emerges that Ned is not an idiot, but his incredible ability to trust and assume the best in people makes him naive. His biggest crime throughout the film is wanting to be helpful, telling the truth and believing what he is told.
Our Idiot Brother is closer in tone to an American indi rather than the broader Hollywood comedies that do rely on more outrageous situations to deliver the big laughs. Our Idiot Brother doesn’t even have too many big laughs and it is somewhat refreshing to watch a comedy that isn’t so desperately trying to make every single moment hilarious. It’s a plot and character driven film with genuine pathos for its characters. All of Ned’s sisters have their own issues and hang-ups that result in friction with Ned, but at no point does the film feel judgemental towards them. The subplots concerning each of the sisters are also resolved differently, demonstrating that not everybody wants or needs to aspire to the same thing. The only aspect of the film that does feel somewhat forced is the depiction of Ned’s ex-girlfriend Janet (Kathryn Hahn) and her new boyfriend Billy (TJ Miller). However, even then the humour is mainly derived from the way Ned and Janet attempt to argue without using confronting language rather than the film directly mocking alternative lifestyles.
While Our Idiot Brother doesn’t quite have the depth of the comedy/drama The Kids Are All Right, there is a similar exploration of family, alternative lifestyles and relationships. The key to why the dynamic between Ned and his sisters works so well is because there is affection between all the characters. It’s the best Rudd has been in a leading role and also showcases Banks, Deschanel and Mortimer as performers who are similarly skilled in straddling the divide between comedy and light drama. Steve Coogan and Rashida Jones are also terrific in important supporting roles.