The new feature film "Our Idiot Brother" is a sweet-natured but slight comedy that benefits from a delightful central performance from Paul Rudd and a few very funny scenes, but doesn't quite manage to wrap itself up satisfactorily as the third act plays out.
Ned, the "idiot brother" of the title, isn't really an idiot. No, he's more along the lines of the classic comedic fool, someone whose gentle good cheer masks a deeper wisdom carried in the heart and soul about the things that truly matter -- which, unfortunately, makes him look like an idiot to those closest to him most of the time.
Rudd's work as Ned is a lot of fun to watch throughout the movie. He's a wide-eyed hippie idealist who looks for the best in every person he meets and every situation in which he finds himself -- whether that means selling a bag of marijuana to a not-at-all undercover cop, or entrusting a thick stack of cash to a complete stranger on a New York subway car, or accidentally injuring his nephew while showing him the joys of a high flying, potentially dangerous, yet completely imaginary martial art inspired by a love of slapstick comedy. Plus he's got this thing about being honest -- all the time.
Ned's sisters (played by Emily Mortimer, Zooey Deschanel and Elizabeth Banks) are all operating in their own problematic circles when he comes back into their lives. Mortimer's Liz is a stay-at-home mom of two whose documentary-filmmaker husband (Steve Coogan) shows no romantic interest in her nowadays; Deschanel's Natalie is trying to be a stand-up comedian, but can't get more than a few people to come to her shows, beyond her lawyer girlfriend (Rashida Jones) and the artist she might be attracted to (Hugh Dancy); Banks' Miranda is a writer working on her big break at a big magazine, but might just be losing perspective in her quest to finally make the leap -- and ignoring the potential for love with a handsome neighbor (Adam Scott).
It is in the middle of these events that Ned re-enters their lives. He's been sprung from his drug sale-induced jail sentence early, possibly thanks to having earned the title of "Most Cooperative Inmate" four months in a row. His sisters take turns putting him up (and putting up with him) while he tries to earn enough money to get his own place, and more importantly, reunite with his beloved Willie Nelson -- no, not the singer-songwriter, this one's a friendly Golden retriever -- by rescuing him from the clutches of his aggressively passive-aggressive ex-girlfriend Janet (Kathryn Hahn). In the midst of upsetting their individual lives, Ned (and his slightly spacey nobility and decency) eventually helps each of his sisters see their worlds with a little more clarity and understand what they need to do to find a little more happiness.
My biggest quibble with the film is that several of the secondary characters in the movie disappear without much, if any, explanation as the second act becomes the third, giving the wrap-up of the movie a rushed feeling that hadn't existed in the previous hour-plus. I've got nothing against a happy ending, but this one felt like about four happy endings mashed together. Also, while "Our Idiot Brother" is rather tender-hearted for an adult comedy, especially in this day and age, there are a couple of scenes of nudity and sexual content that felt shoehorned into the film, as if the filmmakers weren't sure that the liberal use of the "f-word" throughout the movie would be enough to achieve an R rating. The cruder content didn't crash the movie for me -- I'll even admit that the sequences were fairly funny -- but I also don't think I would have missed them if those scenes were absent.
As I write this review and the more I think about him, the more I think that Ned is as much of a dog as his best friend. He loves without much condition and really only seeks to be loved in return. He is loyal and decent to a fault. His greatest joy is to share in your greatest joy. All of these traits are admirable most of the time, but once in a while, they can also be an annoyance; occasionally, they can be downright detrimental.
But those negatives tend to fade. Ultimately, as his sisters find out, when someone like Ned is in your life, you can only be glad to have him around, especially considering what you lose when he's nowhere to be found. Three stars (out of four).