For an end-of-summer family comedy, My Idiot Brother works really hard to make you dislike it. Unfortunately, all their hard work paid off for me.
I went in with high-hopes: the cast was full of seasoned and newbie comedy actors, the premise was fun with Rudd playing across type as a “fuck up” of a guy (though the only evidence of this is that he’s kind of a slow hippie, which is Hollywood’s version of a fuckup, I guess?), and the script had enough life to feel like I could enjoy it for two hours.
Lily Tomlin once said about another prominent queerly-beloved comedian that she couldn’t enjoy the woman’s humor because she was just too mean-spirited. That quality of cruelty undercut whatever joy there was to be had in the jokes.
This is the key difference between one of my favorite comedies of the past 10 years, also starring Rudd, I Love You, Man and My Idiot Brother. You can see it right there in the titles.
I Love You, Man had a similarly stellar cast of veterans and rising stars and a deeply likable leading man in Paul Rudd. In fact, the whole cast is Deeply Likable. Rudd’s family loves each other and treats one another with respect (a fact used artfully to create even more humor between his Rudd’s father JK Simmons and brother Andy Samberg). The only two assholes in the movie are known assholes that are legitimately fun to hate. The comedy comes from these well-meaning folks getting into awkward situations, and yet never feels droll, dated or staid. The whole vector of the film is a bunch of silly great people trying really hard to keep loving each other.
On the other hand, in My Idiot Brother, Rudd was literally the only likeable element in the film. From the opening sequence with a uniformed cop entrapping Rudd, the film becomes the Asshole Olympics, with every self-indulgent fool trying to out-dick each other. Every woman is a shrew and every man is an ineffective pushover. The only vaguely likeable characters are the woefully miscast Rashida Jones (who is generally really quite good, so seeing her embarrassing herself and every lesbian in America with her- what would one call it- Butch Face? was just sad. You’re playing a lawyer for fuck’s sake, SIT UP STRAIGHT AT THE DINNER TABLE! Lesbian doesn’t equal 12-year-old boy. Is this really that hard to understand?) and the boyfriend-material neighbor of the shrewiest shrew of them all, Elizabeth Banks. The writing really strains here, because honestly, what do these decent people see in this family?
Rudd’s character, while sticking a little too close to some worn-cliches, still enjoys an arc of trying to figure out why “growing up” means “turning into a hateful shell of a human being.” Yet, the climax is achieved by having the sweet-spirited Rudd lose his temper and out-dick everyone. He wins, I suppose?
I suppose this was crafted as a fish-out-of-water type film, a kind of Being There with less acreage and orgasms.
Even the scene in which the family’s redemption is supposed to be solidified is basically just the finals for the Asshole Olympics, where the sisters just try to out-dick the dickiest dick of them all. This, I suppose, is supposed to make us believe that they love their idiot brother.
Hopes? Dashed. Rudd does do the bulk of the lifting by being so damn sweet. The scenes with his nephew are particularly enjoyable, and the very last scenes with Rudd and his new buddy are the source of the only genuinely happy laughs throughout the film. And, at times, it is endearing to watch him navigate his woeful misunderstanding of the evil manipulations of everyone around him. It’d all be sweet if it weren’t so depressing.