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Movie Review

Our Idiot Brother

They’re with stupid: Paul Rudd is the gimmick at the center of emotionally bogus ‘Idiot Brother’

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / August 26, 2011

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A new Muppet movie isn’t scheduled to arrive until November. But for anyone who can’t wait, there’s “Our Idiot Brother,’’ which actually makes, say, “Muppets From Space’’ seem like August Wilson and makes you feel like one of the box-seat grouches on the old “Muppet Show.’’

You want to like the movie that asks you to believe that Shirley Knight could be the biological mother of Paul Rudd, Emily Mortimer, Zooey Deschanel, and Elizabeth Banks. You want to like the movie that delivers Rudd as a dim peacenik named Ned, who wears his hair and beard long and his Crocs bright. He could play the bongos for Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem.

You want to laugh when Ned catches his brother-in-law (Steve Coogan) naked with a beautiful woman or when he smashes the hand of his nephew in a door. But then you realize that Ned really is an idiot. He’s pathologically free-spirited and, fresh out of prison for selling pot to a cop, he exists to exasperate the three sisters who live in and around New York by the popping in and out of their lives.

You want to laugh at this, except the movie is forcing you to do so. Adultery and dysfunction are cute problems. Deschanel’s character shares a loft with her girlfriend (Rashida Jones, underutilized again and still the best thing here) and a gang of bohemians who don’t get up to anything interesting. Though Deschanel’s compulsion to play another Quirky Performance Artist is satisfied. Banks (shrill careerist) and Mortimer (neurotic wimp) conform to type, too. Ned makes their relationships harder than they already appear to be. He’s a gimmick, and yet without him the movie is just “Hanna-Barbera and Her Sisters.’’ Either way, it’s all emotionally counterfeit, and that bogusness infects the comedy.

Whatever authentic eccentricity the director Jesse Peretz once had in movies like “First Love, Last Rites’’ and “The Chateau,’’ an underrated comedy with Rudd and Romany Malco, has curdled into the canned eccentricity that’s made Deschanel so predictable in movies. Peretz has figured out how to make a happy commercial contraption with eccentric flavoring. This one was flavored by his sister Evgenia, who wrote the script with her husband, David Schisgall. You can feel them all straining for a hit so desperately and with such condescension that they’ve lost any sense of what their movie is about, who this family is, how its members relate to each other. All they want is your Facebook “like.’’

I knew we were in trouble when we learn that Ned’s dog is named Willie Nelson. What feels like a quarter of the movie is spent trying to pry Willie from the grip of Ned’s ex-girlfriend (Kathryn Hahn), who kicked Ned off the little biodynamic farm she now shares with a bigger idiot (T.J. Miller). The dog is part of the punch line for the last scene, which is so sweet the FDA should rate the movie, too.

I didn’t care for “Little Miss Sunshine,’’ but I believed its starting point. I believed the relationships. That movie might be the most important American comedy of the last 10 years. Even if filmmakers aren’t consciously trying to replicate it, some audiences are hoping they do. The studios are still looking for a way to match that movie or top it, and part of the appeal of Peretz’s film was also the appeal of “Little Miss Sunshine’’: good actors in a bad family and on the move. At least once, in a van. Of course.

The best moment in “Our Idiot Brother’’ isn’t funny at all. Ned finally cracks his life-is-good veneer and barks at his sisters during a family game. They’ve lost the innocence that he clings to and wants to preserve in his nephew. Rudd reminds you that, when pushed, he can summon great rage, that his shticks have levels. In other words, he woke me up in that scene. I drifted off again when I remembered the game they’re all playing. It’s charades.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com or followed on Twitter: @wesley_morris.

Paul Rudd
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OUR IDIOT BROTHER Directed by: Jesse Peretz

Written by: Evgenia Peretz and David Schisgall

Starring: Paul Rudd, Emily Mortimer, Zooey Deschanel, Elizabeth Banks, Rashida Jones, Steve Coogan, Adam Scott, Hugh Dancy, and Shirley Knight

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 95 minutes

Rated: R (language, some nudity, sexuality, and a few drug references)

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