Review of “Our Idiot Brother”

I have been psyched on about Our Idiot Brother since they made the casting announcement that Zooey Deschanel would play Paul Rudd‘s bisexual sister, who was in a relationship with Rashida Jones. Besides that these women are both fine actresses with great comedic skills, the fact that there was a prominent lesbian couple in a buzzed about familial film with other big names like Elizabeth Banks, Emily Mortimer and Kathryn Hahn was even more exciting. Plus I’ve always liked Paul Rudd — ever since Clueless, yes, but especially after Wet Hot American Summer.

So that’s why I’m about to tell you why I was so bummed out by this movie. (Spoilers ahead.}

First, a little bit about the plot: Rudd plays Ned, a well-meaning but rather naive 30-something who is incarcerated for selling weed to a police officer. This isn’t his first time, unfortunately, as he’s a big fan of organic farming, if you know what I mean. When he gets released, he finds his girlfriend (Hahn) has moved on, and he’s forced to go live with his mother. Because that’s a little too depressing, he begins taking up his sisters’ offers to stay with them, one at at time. First, Liz (Mortimer) who is a stressed out mom married to a cheating documentary maker. Second, Natalie (Deschanel) who lives with several roommates while she tries her hand at stand-up comedy. Lastly, Miranda (Banks), a writer at Vanity Fair who is trying to get her first cover story.

At each household, Ned complicates his sister’s lives by his sheer involvement, although you’ll find out that it’s not really his fault. Instead, Ned inadvertently shines a light on the issues in their relationships, both personal and professional. With Natalie, Ned is the person she confides in with a huge secret she is hiding, and he let’s it slip to her girlfriend, Cindy (Jones).

Cindy is a part of the family. Natalie’s sisters and mother love her, she’s invited to family dinners and functions and she’s a successful lawyer. She genuinely cares about Natalie and even her down-and-out brother Ned. He’s her buddy, and she is intent on helping him get his dog back from his evil ex.

But Natalie craves attention. Ned says that she’ll sleep with anyone; she even “slept with their cousin.” (Here come the terrible stereotypes!) She’s bisexual, so despite the fact she’s in love with Cindy, she can’t help but want to sleep with a male artist (Hugh Dancy) she’s posing for. She convinces Ned to go to a cult-esque steam room meeting with her because the artist is a member. They end up sleeping together — and Natalie gets pregnant.

Without considering any options other than lying to Cindy as long as possible before having the baby, Natalie tells Ned, who instantly ushers her to come clean with Cindy. To get Ned off her back about it, she tells him she told Cindy everything and everything is OK. Ned believes her (see what I mean about his being naive?) and later tells Cindy how cool it is of her to be so understanding. When Cindy asks what the hell he’s talking about, she becomes visibly sad and furious at the same time, calling Natalie to scream “How could you?” into the phone.

Natalie blames Ned for entire ordeal, joining her sisters in their eventual joint boycott of their brother. He was part of Liz’s finding out her husband is a cheater and he wouldn’t lie to Miranda’s boss for her about a story she didn’t acquire in the most ethical way. WIthout ruining any more of the plot points, I can tell you that the family comes back together in the end to help Ned retrieve his dog and get on with his life, as they all know they need to get on with theirs.

As Natalie prepares to have the baby, she finally gets a call from Cindy, indicating that they will be getting back together again, despite the cheating and the real live person that will be coming out of it. Her sisters are ecstatic: “We get Cindy!” But as a viewer, I was let down.

Some background on the film: Director Jesse Peretz created the character of Natalie specifically for Zooey Deschanel. He recently told The Hollywood Reporter how he came to cast Rashida as her girlfriend:

Thinking about Rashida was totally in contrast of what I really had in mind [for the character], which was like a real butch chick with short hair, tattoos, a chain wallet, whatever. But when I started thinking about it, I was like “You know what though, Rashida does have, she really has tough energy.” I wanted you to feel that there was some slightly more male energy and that Zooey could still play like a really kind of girly bisexual. I feel like Rashida really found that. She found that farthest edge she could of playing the kind of butch chick.

This gives me a very specific idea of the kinds of stereotypes the director was working with from the get-go. Considering the last mainstream film with a major lesbian relationship had a similar storyline of one of the women stepping out with a man and it was deemed offensive by many of the lesbians who saw it, it’s almost kind of mindboggling that Peretz would ignore this blatant copycat scenario. (And it’s not like Lisa Cholodenko was the first one to go there, either.) It really seemed as if he thought “Dude, let’s make one of the chicks bisexual and she cheats on her girlfriend with a guy!” And then it went one step further to where she didn’t use protection, got pregnant and decided to keep the baby. But to then have the lesbian partner call her up and say “All is forgiven — let’s get back together and raise this child!” is just maddening. Even if you want to tie up a film in a pretty red bow of happiness, it’s just an insane scenario that shows how out of touch Peretz is with real life gay and bisexual women.

Now this exact scenario arguably could be someone out there’s real life situation, but this is the second major film in the last few years to have a lesbian couple that cannot exist without the appearance of a penis. (It certainly does not pass the Bechdel Test.) It was a waste of the women and their talent, and the opportunity to create something funny, poignant and different. It’s almost as if Natalie is only acceptable to the hetero viewer because she is so feminine and willing to sleep with a man. And her lesbian girlfriend gets her heart trampled on only to come back for more. (Is Natalie really that pretty? Is that what we’re supposed to surmise?)

So, in the end, Natalie ends up looking promiscuous and Cindy, sad and pathetic. As for Ned’s other sisters, they don’t fare a ton better. Liz realizes she stopped taking care of herself to become a dutiful wife and mother, as her sisters point out she looks like crap, and Miranda figures out she’s been too much of a career woman with incredibly high standards for men, so she loses some ambition and dates the guy downstairs. Yeah, I wouldn’t call it much of a feminist film.

I really wanted to like Our Idiot Brother, as so many of the elements were in place. Most of Ned’s interactions with people are comical, as we all know someone who is just too nice and too dumb for their own good. But when you factor in the disappointing depictions of Ned’s sisters, the laughs probably aren’t worth it.

Our Idiot Brother opens in theaters today.