It’s easy to feel gulled by Our Idiot Brother. After all, Jesse Peretz’s film treads dangerously close to a Forrest Gump-ian celebration of passive innocence as the shaper of lives. But whereas Robert Zemeckis’s movie disastrously proposed its cutie-pie hero as one of the inadvertent prime movers of post-war American history, Peretz’s “idiot,” biodynamic farmer Ned (Paul Rudd), turns his unconscious influence to a far smaller task: righting the lives of his three vaguely troubled New York sisters.
While the film does seem to propose the same celebration of insensible ingenuousness as Forrest Gump, in this case by contrasting Ned’s earnestness and honesty with several less noble big-city lifestyles, Peretz’s movie plays as far less reductive, both because Ned, for all of his cluelessness, lives according to a conscious positivism that looks for the best in other people, and because Paul Rudd’s performance is far richer than Tom Hanks’s smiley obliviousness.
Rudd’s hippie farmer seems at least partly modeled on The Big Lebowski‘s Dude (in his scraggly sartorial sense, his aggressively bearded appearance, and his pronunciation of the word “man”), but Ned is clearly an original creation. An idiot in the Dostoyevskyan “holy fool” sense, Ned is marked equally by his forthrightness, his generosity, and his cluelessness. Introduced selling weed to a uniformed police officer who claims to have had a “tough week,” Ned is sent to jail for a short sentence before being released on parole and moving to the city to stay in turn with his mom and his sisters.
If Our Idiot Brother clearly courts Gump-ian territory, its pattern finally bears a stronger resemblance to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema. Though just as Peretz’s film imparts an edgy comedy lacking from the Zemeckis, so it conveys a sweetness (never cloying) that’s nowhere present in the Italian classic. In other words, Ned doesn’t fuck anyone and no one goes crazy. Instead, through his trustworthy demeanor he reaps the confidences of all the film’s characters before inadvertently blurting privileged information to the wrong party. As a result, he stirs things up with each of his three sisters (one who refuses to recognize her husband cheating on her, one who refuses to come clean about cheating on her girlfriend, one forced to make questionable ethical choices to further her career in gossip journalism), compelling them to face up to and resolve the issues affecting their lives.
But, ultimately, what makes Our Idiot Brother work is the endless appeal of watching Rudd’s lovable idiot run roughshod over the sophisticated New York mini-universe while winning the confidence and admiration of everyone around him. He’s never overly idealized (in one scene we see him admit to intentional self-delusion, thus calling into question the extent of his earnest innocence), he doesn’t get everything he wants (he develops a special bond with a wealthy royal, but she immediately turns down his request for a date), but his live-and-let-live attitude comes off as simultaneously genuine and irrepressible. Yes, the film often draws too heavily on a limp satire of both Manhattan yuppie-ism and the hippie lifestyle, but such missteps are overcome by the game efforts of a uniformly strong cast of comic talents of whom the most striking are surprise guest star Steve Coogan in ultimate cad mode and the perpetually engaging Rudd himself.