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When idiots are dull



Oh, man, Paul Rudd deserves better than this. In "Our Idiot Brother," he's the titular sibling, Ned, a hippie so dippy he sells a uniformed cop a baggie of weed on the basis of little more than a "c'mon." When he gets out of prison - broke and, unbeknownst to him, dumped - he's reduced to crashing with his mother and in turn his three sisters, each of whom embodies a different New York stereotype. Miranda (Elizabeth Banks) is the careerist magazine writer; Natalie (Zooey Deschanel) is the semi-committed semi-lesbian semi-Bohemian; Liz (Emily Mortimer) is the panicky mother angling with her documentarian husband (Steve Coogan) to get their seven-year-old son conditioned for elite prep schooling. If you haven't been keeping up with New York magazine for the past few years, none of this is going to make enough sense to be funny, and even if you are waist-deep in F-train commuters five times a week, it's still going to be struggle to squeeze out more than a couple of laughs. Mostly the sound in the theater is going to be seats creaking as people shift their weight, the occasional throat clearing. You almost certainly have better things to do with yourself than to see this movie.

Ned is likable enough, actually, but therein lies much of the problem. He's naive and endlessly good-natured, nice to the point of dumb. When he needs a place to put his cash as he counts it on the subway, he hands it to a stranger to hold. He wears out his welcome at Liz's house by roughhousing with the little boy, who thereafter exclaims his love of fighting. Ned's so guileless that one of Miranda's standoffish story subjects warms to him, excluding Miranda; awkwardness ensues. He holds secrets like a fork holds lemonade. His greatest pain in life is his ex-girlfriend asserting ownership of the dog they shared, Willie Nelson. This dog's name is repeated so many times that the joke is worn thin, pounded flat and then thrown to the wind as confetti.

The problem is director Jesse Peretz tries to have it both ways. The movie has a few jokes and set pieces played for laughs, but mostly isn't so much comedy as quirky family drama. And Ned is somewhere between too dopey to believe and too common to care about. The movie's tagline "everybody has one," referring to black sheep, suggests it wants to be a universal family story. But we get neither a convincingly realistic Ned nor a fabulously singular Ned. Instead he's Jeff Lebowski as interpreted by a "Family Circus" cartoon. Meanwhile there's just enough nudity and f-bombs that moms, who would be the best bet to care for the characters and story arc, will also be put off.

At the middle, playing things cool, is Rudd, who's the consummate buddy comedy actor, thrust into a starring role in which he doesn't have any buddies. There is a scene in which Ned and Miranda's neighbor fellow have coffee and talk about how Ned could try to find a lady friend. Suddenly there's some chemistry and some sparky writing, and people are saying things that you didn't see coming from nine lines away. It's a patter that feels both original and familiar - a welcome contrast to the rest of the movie, which feels neither. Turns out Rudd just needs a friend. Darn shame Ned isn't the character to get him one.

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