Friday, September 2, 2011

Are Women The New Men, Part Two: “Our Idiot Brother”

      A colleague of mine recently said that scientists are tracking the weakening of the Y chromosome and its potential extinction, which mean that there would be fewer, if any, males at some time in the future.  Our Idiot Brother shows what could happen if this theory became reality. Paul Rudd is the neo hippie, organic micro farmer who, through a cruel sting, ends up doing some jail time.  Upon release, he finds his girlfriend, played by Kathryn Hahn, has replaced him.  Hahn plays the most annoying, passive aggressive ball-buster
in recent memory and she is hilarious in her few scenes.  Unless you stay for the end credits, you’ll miss how much of a focused performance she gives in the film and what a presence she possesses.  As Neil said, she comes across like a young Sandra Bernhard, except without the irony or sarcasm.  The melding of character and performer is a recurring issue in many films, but especially in this one.  She’s replaced Rudd’s Type B character with T.J. Miller’s and he makes Rudd seem like Genghis Khan.  This is an out there performance by Miller because the character seems like he needs a minder or should be in a group home yet the actor never patronizes.  Could two characters that are of the earth, so green, so healthy, be more unattractive?  And I mean that as a compliment.

      Rudd ends up at his mother’s, played by Shirley Knight, who matches up very well with him in attitude and emotional tone.  It’s easier to make two actors look like they could be related; it’s much more difficult to make them seem like they’re related through gesture, vocal nuance, and even philosophical bent.  They achieve it together and it’s almost suffocating for him so he ends up passed between his three sisters, his naïve honesty being his ticket to the next household each time.  What a collection of sisters they are!  The onus has been on these characters since childhood to achieve since their brother is so languid and they each have an energy that pulsates.  

      Elizabeth Banks is the driven Yuppie without much attention for romance even though Adam Scott’s not yet successful Sci-Fi writer is in love with her.  Scott plays about the only A Type male character in the movie and he’s charming.  He’s a natural for a romantic comedy. He was in Leap Year, but played the one that gets dumped, rather than the betrothed.  It made sense, though, because Amy Adams’ sweet dizziness does not mesh with his ironic gravitas.  He and Banks are a potentially wonderful team.  They reminded me of Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni’s pairings, especially the third part of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow when Loren is intrigued and involved with everything and everyone around her except for the increasingly exasperated and exhausted Mastroianni who’s paying for her favors.  Banks was sensible and sweet in Definitely, Maybe and sensible and kind as Laura Bush in W., but when her engine is running in fifth gear as it does on 30 Rock and here, her avidity is fascinating.  She’s a firecracker embodying Tom Petty’s “She’s an American girl / raised on promises” because she senses that the promises were a placebo, rather than a cultural and political framework.  The screenplay by Evgenia Peretz and David Schisgall is close to being a gem and one example is that Banks’ character (closed off to almost everything but her own ambition) is the one that understands the key to her brother.

      Emily Mortimer is the sweet maternal sister, frustrated in her marriage, and unconsciously disconnected from her son because of her sullen, philandering husband.  Although Steve Coogan can never drop his English accent, I’ve never seen him give the same performance twice – this is another important note in this context.  I love Mortimer’s presence in movies, but I’ve never seen her give anything except the same performance.  When this happens, a viewer starts asking ‘is this the actual performer rather than the realization of the character?   While this has worked for her and, obviously, for me, I wish she’d try a different genre.  The best thing I’ve seen her do was as Woody Harrelson’s wife – they really seemed like they had an ambivalent, shared past – in Trans Siberian, a violent thriller from a couple of years ago that played for about a week in Cincinnati.  

      Zooey Deschanel is the promiscuous wild child, not ready to settle down, though she loves her partner played by Rashida Jones.  I thought Deschanel’s deadpan, sly presence was offbeat and cute in The Good Girl and I really liked her in the breakup and the post-relationship reunion scenes in 500 Days of Summer.  (I never saw her in the highly rated, but little viewed All The Real Girls).  But, after seeing her as a guest judge on Top Chef a couple of seasons back, I’m not sure what she does can be called acting.  She does her wide-eyed, monotonous line readings and she isn’t exactly boring because the script is too good to be sunk by any performer even temporarily, but she doesn’t bring any game.  Rashida Jones works her butt off in her scenes with her and seems mightily relieved to have a section with Rudd.  Jones is a talented actress as she’s proved on TV and in her recent raissoneur in The Social Network when, with discretion, she nails the truth about Mark Zuckerberg.  After all the depositions and legal maneuvering in that film, her scene at the end made me think “I’d hire that lawyer over the other ones.”

      For all my complaining about two of the sisters, one of the best scenes in the movie (perhaps it was rewritten to reflect what we know of the three actresses’ images) is when the sisters go after each other in the name of being supportive.  However, what they say about each other reflects not only the characters in this film, but some of the characters we’ve seen them play in the past.  That’s where the tensiveness for the viewer – identifying the performer versus the character – comes into play in this context and why I’ve approached most of the actors this way;

      Paul Rudd is terrific in this.  He is probably one of the most popular actors working so regularly at the moment and it’s because he’s somehow adorable and non-threatening even if his characters do dopey things at times.  He’s believable playing the character without making a viewer think that he’s just playing himself.  He’s on the cusp of a dangerous edge as a starring performer.  As Barbra Streisand and Tom Hanks have shown in the past, once you move from comedy to drama, it’s difficult if not impossible to return to comedy.  Streisand had been spontaneous and hilarious and then she seemed to lose her sense of humor under the pressure of Yentl and then she was too mature and not enough of a match to Maureen Stapleton to be her daughter in Nuts.  Whenever she’s attempted humor in the past twenty years, usually on talk shows, she seems half-hearted and not believable because she takes herself way too seriously.  Tom Hanks was a wonderful light comedian and then romantic comedian and then he got serious and that worked (with a couple of Oscars and a string of blockbusters), but his films from the past seven years – except for Toy Story 3 – have not done as well and my theory is that he’s become an icon for most Americans because of the nobility he’s displayed in honoring the “Greatest Generation.”  Rudd has played all kinds of roles in comedies and I hope he continues for a while longer and doesn’t get seduced into the kinds of roles that are either awards bait or middle brow blockbusters or, worse yet, ‘franchises’. (I prefer the Big Mac to Spiderman or Iron Man).  

      Rudd really gets across that what he needs and loves is his dog.  The movie is about two minutes too long.  There’s a natural end to the movie when he’s enthusing with Miller about how lucky they are.  I don’t think his character can handle more than what’s going on in that scene, but there has to be a cliché ending, no matter that it is sweet.  The unspoken subtext of the movie is that the idiot brother is not that far from his hyper, driven sisters.  They really cannot handle their own lives and really need his guileless explanations because it puts them all on the road to happier lives and that’s the real joy of this film.

I know Paul Rudd was really into his dog, but that's because he hasn't met me!

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