The absolutely most enthusiastic thing I can say about Our Idiot Brother is that I didn’t mind sitting through it. (Actually, I’d like to see that for a DVD break-out quote—“I didn’t mind sitting through it.”) If that’s not snappy enough, I could say, it’s not as much like Forrest Gump as I thought it might be. The sad and bitter truth is that the film’s most successful aspect lay in the fact that it was less obnoxious than I’d anticipated. That’s hardly enough to run out and start recommending it. I mean, sure, if it was between this and The Smurfs, Our Idiot Brother would look pretty good. But since you don’t have to see either …well, you get the point. (And if you don’t, you deserve to see them both.)
Paul Rudd plays Ned, a good-natured specimen of the boobus Americanus in its most aggressive form. Ned is such a sweetheart of a sap that the film opens with a uniformed cop (TV actor Bob Stephenson) getting Ned to give him some pot, insisting on paying him for it, and then promptly arresting him. It isn’t just that the cop has entrapped Ned, it’s that he’s deliberately played on Ned’s good-natured sympathies in order to do so. This is symptomatic of how the film peddles its banana-oil premise—it’s less that Ned is such a nice guy than that almost everybody else in the movie is pretty vile.
Our Idiot Brother then proceeds to lumber through its mix-and-match plot that not only borrows from everything from 1950’s Harvey (where crazy people are better than sane ones) to 1994’s Forrest Gump (where the terminally dim are the saviors of the world), but plays out more like a Woody Allen picture with a lobotomy. Ned’s three sisters are like the Wal-Mart knock-offs of Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). His sister Liz (Emily Mortimer), for instance, is married to a self-absorbed documentary filmmaker (played with zero laughs by Steve Coogan) who feels like an unlikable combination of the Woody Allen and Alan Alda characters in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989).
Once Ned gets out of jail, he finds that his nasty, hippie girlfriend (an abrasive Kathryn Hahn) has both dumped him in favor of stoner Billy (T.J. Miller) and refuses to give back his forced-quirkily named dog, Willie Nelson. So Ned goes home to his genially dipsomaniac mom (Shirley Knight) and then proceeds to wander through the lives of his dysfunctional and unlikable sisters, causing havoc at every turn. The idea is that both hilarity and life lessons will ensue. Not really.
The problem with all of this is that not only are the supporting characters unpleasant caricatures, but Ned finally seems more annoying than naively charming. If it weren’t for the fact that his sisters—and most of their friends, lovers and whatevers—are so awful, his bumbling stupidity would be unbearable. Then there’s the problem of the film needing to turn it all around and make the sisters OK, too. Well, the carefully contrived ace up the script’s sleeve is that everyone looks pretty good when put up against that evil ex-girlfriend. Calling the plot mechanical would be too generous. And for the capper, the film has the gall to have the guileless Ned claim that his plan all along was to show his sisters the errors of their ways.
In the plus column? Well, there’s a satisfying moment where Ned explodes at his sisters. Some of the scenes between Rudd and Adam Scott play well, and Rashida Jones—playing Zooey Deschanel’s girlfriend—manages to seem surprisingly real in the midst of all the contrivances. And, yeah, the dog is convincingly a dog. Rated R for sexual content including nudity, and for language throughout.