In ‘Our Idiot Brother,’ the idiot is the smart one, and so is this refreshing comedy (Movie review)

In a scene from “Our Idiot Brother,” title character Ned (Paul Rudd) is counting his cash on the subway and he hands it to a stranger to hold onto while he cleans up a coffee spill. If I saw this happen in reality, I’d assume there was a hidden camera for a reality show that secretly tests people’s ethics.

Most of us, in our daily dealings, are always wondering what other people think of us, what angle someone is working. This has nothing to do with whether we are a good or bad person — that’s dependent on how our parents raised us. We are all self-conscious to various degrees because that’s how modern culture has raised us. We can’t help ourselves.

Ned’s sisters — played by Emily Mortimer, Elizabeth Banks and Zooey Deschanel — are “normal” people in this sense. Ned is comparatively from another planet (which proves that your outlook on life isn’t totally depending on your parents, I admit). A super-nice, refreshingly honest guy, Ned sells weed to a uniformed cop who blatantly entraps him and he ends up in jail. It’s the film’s first example of how Ned is the screw-up, the black sheep among the siblings.

But when he crashes on the couches (and bunk beds and inflatable rafts) of his various sisters, we see that the ladies have plenty of problems of their own as they operate in their world of messed-up normalcy, one where we’re trained — not without good reason — to assume the worst in everyone.

You’d think “Our Idiot Brother” would come across as totally manipulative, with a saintly simpleton at its core, like “Forrest Gump.” Or you might think that Ned’s honesty is due to a condition, like the Asperger’s-afflicted characters we’re seeing more of in film (“Adam”) and on TV (the little boy on “Parenthood”). But it’s not that type of movie, and it’s better for it. Ned is not saddled with a mental condition or a speech impediment or anything like that, and everyone immediately likes him.

While the three ladies understand the workings of the social world, Ned understands people, innocently getting into their business — Mortimer’s cheating husband; Banks’ challenging magazine story; and Deschanel’s wounded girlfriend — and helping them.

Among this summer’s movies, “Our Idiot Brother” is more akin to “Crazy, Stupid, Love” in that it will make you smile a lot more than it makes you laugh out loud (the difference is that “Brother” is breezy and it coasts to an ending, whereas “Love” sticks with a viewer a bit more and builds up to a grand finale). There are a few guffaws, though; in classic modern-comedy fashion, it gets chuckles out of the sight of naked men and the words for naked-man parts.

The cast is up to the high standard set by Rudd, who was born to play this role (and he has played it plenty of times before, but never as the centerpiece). In addition to the three wonderful actresses as the sisters, there are a couple “Parks and Recreation” stars put to good use: a lesbian-ized Rashida Jones as Deschanel’s girlfriend, and Adam Scott — basically playing his “Parks” character — as a possible love interest for Banks. Also, you’ll recognize T.J. Miller and Kathryn Hahn as organic farmers even if you can’t remember where you’ve seen them before. And showing some versatility, Hugh Dancy steps in as an artist specializing in nudes who has a thing for Deschanel.

The cast is so across-the-board good that I even want to praise the dog who plays Willie Nelson, truly Ned’s best friend. The fact that the sisters are dealing with their serious-but-movie-cliche problems while Ned’s plot centers on getting his dog back tells you everything you need to know about this guy.

“Our Idiot Brother” is a blend of the best Lifetime movie ever made and a darn good man’s-best-friend movie, plus it has a tasty pinch of summer-movie humor. At it’s heart, though, is Rudd as Ned, who provides a valuable — but refreshingly non-manipulative — lesson to those of us living in the “real world.” Sure, he learns his own harsh lessons, but somehow even those don’t seem too harsh; Ned knows how to roll with a punch, and you’ll love him for it.

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