dir: Jesse Peretz
Ah, a finer adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot we’ll never get in our lifetimes. Even Akira Kurosawa’s version isn’t this good.
Yeah, I’m pulling your leg. I’m pulling the heck out of your leg. This isn’t a particularly good movie, but it’s not the worst flick ever made either.
Now that’s a ringing recommendation, isn’t it? The thing is, though, I really did enjoy this movie. I pretty much enjoyed it solely because of Paul Rudd’s performance as the likeable idiot of the title.
For much of the flick, the impression we’re meant to have is that whilst his family might see him as an idiot, he’s not an idiot. He might come across as naïve, or too trusting, but generally he’s just a happy-go-lucky guy surrounded by cynical, selfish, awful people.
And then he does some stuff that could only really be done by an idiot, or at least someone with strong idiotic tendencies. Sometimes, even when someone isn’t entirely something, they can sidle close enough up to it that they might as well ‘be’ the label they’d like to avoid.
Ned (Paul Rudd), who’s pretty much a hippy in the modern age, is so trusting that when a uniformed police officer asks him if he’s got some dope, considering what a difficult, stressful week the cop’s had, Ned believes him and gives him some dope.
That’s what he does: he believes people, believes the best of people. If they’re going to be pricks about it, like, if the cop actually arrests him and Ned gets jailed, well, that’s the cop’s fault and the cop’s problem.
Can you see the inevitable problem with this kind of thinking? Maybe not. Maybe you’re a fairly zen kind of person, and you believe in the kind of concept that the universe gives a damn about our actions, and rewards or punishes people because of their karma, man.
If so, then Ned’s going to seem like a fucking guru to you.
In the real world, or at least a world as real as this movie tries to conjure up for our entertainment, pretty much everyone despises Ned. His endearing naiveté causes nothing but misery to all the people around him.
But, you know, it’s not like it’s his fault, dude. It’s like, why is everyone so uptight anyway? It’s all going to work out, so just chill.
His sisters are an especially poisonous bunch of bitches. Forgive me for such a sexist lapse in judgement, but they’re really awful. There’s the one who’s trying to write for Vanity Fair, and who acts like she fell out of a Sex and the City episode, down to the helmet hairstyle (Elizabeth Banks), there’s the housewife one (with the English accent) who’s blind to her own sham of a marriage and her crappy parenting skills, and blames it all on Ned (Emily Mortimer), and the East Village lipstick lesbian loft living type that you can only have played by Zooey Deschanel. All of them are selfish liars, all of them (correctly) see Ned as a fuck up, but none of them has brains enough to realise that whenever they tell Ned something, he repeats it to the world unfiltered.
As he wanders from bed, to couch, to dinghy in pursuit of a place to sleep, he manages to wreck carnage upon the lives of every member of his family. And why? Because he’s keeping it real. Everyone else is awful, and their awfulness leads them to misery, but only because Ned’s keeping it real.
As such, I guess he is some kind of spiritual figure, like Kaine / Grasshopper in the old television series Kung Fu, walking the earth, letting his wisdom and gentle ways help out the troubled souls who are lucky enough to encounter him during his travels.
In truth, though, as willing as I was to believe that the idiot of the title wasn’t an idiot, per se, a lot of stuff that happens could certainly be used as proof that he probably is something of a well-meaning idiot. Well-meaning idiots don’t always reinvigorate people’s lives and show them the folly of their ways. Well-meaning idiots sometimes say stuff like: “sure, I’ll email you my bank account details, nice man in Nigeria”, or “torturing people can stop a ticking time bomb from going off,” or “we should start another war in Afghanistan”, or, even worse, “yes, your ass does look big in those pants, but that's okay, because I like big butts.”
Well-meaning idiots probably outrank and outnumber all the other types of idiots you can think of and imagine. But after all, Ned’s our hero of sorts, and the people around him are the other types of idiots who actively have malicious or at least selfish intent, and so, fuck them, is what I say.
He ruins his married sister’s marriage without realising it, he destroys his journalist sister’s career by not lying for her, and he ruins his pregnant lesbian sister’s relationship by telling her partner (Rashida Jones in big mom glasses from the 80s) about how wonderful it is that she’s pregnant.
He never tells a lie, he’s never dishonest with anyone, and he takes everything everyone says at face value. How could his every action do anything but light up the world with Joy?
Ned is so goddamn nice, for lack of a better term, that the moment when he finally snaps made me laugh like an idiot myself. I’m not going to insult your intelligence by claiming that anything in this flick builds believably to a worthwhile resolution, since it’s hard to believe that poisonous people could stop being poisonous for the rest of their lives just because someone yells at them for a few minutes.
But this isn’t a flick for character arcs, thematic progression or meaning. It’s only meant to be an engine for laughs, and it really doesn’t do that much of it. The sisters aren’t funny, no matter how little they try, which means that it’s almost entirely upon Paul Rudd’s shoulders to generate the humour. And he manages to do a pretty good job of it, despite the obvious handicap (the rest of the cast).
Many of the laughs come from people not being able to believe just how naïve Ned is, but some comes from some squirmy situations that Ned’s pure realness results in. Two of my favourite moments arise from situations that have nothing to do with the main members of the cast. One involves an uncomfortable threesome that arises at a party, which isn’t that funny in and of itself, but Ned’s reaction, and then attempts at politely resolving the situation made me veritably piss myself.
The other involved his recommendation as to what he wanted his nephew to tell his sisters and mother after he was jailed a second time. Now that’s comedy.
Paul Rudd usually languishes in support roles, and this time he’s stepped to the front to be noticed, I’d say with mixed results, but good on him for trying. You’ve got to admire the Little Engine that tries and tries but never makes it until the very end. The only other character that I thought really nailed it and managed to not be too annoying is played by T.J. Miller, as Ned’s ex girlfriend’s current partner, who seems to be a good hearted and well-meaning idiot himself. Miller pops up in small roles in a lot of flicks, and I often enjoy his performances more than many of the work put in by other cast members (Extract, She’s Out of My League, Unstoppable come to mind).
In the end, I’m not sure if the flick really is that funny, or that it promotes Idiot Awareness in a positive fashion, nor will it make them easier to spot or avoid in future after watching it. Every village, and most families, have their own idiots, and it’s rare that interactions with them go as smoothly and as mildly catastrophic as they go in this flick. But at least this isn’t story that ends up with anyone getting shot over Christmas lunch, or stabbed in the neck over a football game.
And maybe, just maybe, a family of idiots of varying degrees could watch this flick for a peaceful 90 minutes and have an enjoyable time, making comments to each other like, “Shoot, look at these la-di-da muckymucks, what with their floors and teeth and such. And they’re resolving their family issues without beatin’s! This here moo-vie must be science friction, I tell you what.”
And it’s 90 minutes in which they won’t be fighting, fucking or fronting, and that’s got to be worth something.
6 times I wouldn’t be surprised if Ned was secretly having sex with Willie Nelson out of 10
“I just want to play charades with my family.” – none of us want to play charades with your despicable family – Our Idiot Brother