Our Idiot Brother


With the exception of men in superhero tights, it’s been a bad summer to be a guy in films.


A movie with a big heart, Our Idiot Brother nonetheless continues the downward trajectory of middle-aged men in this recession-plagued summer.  The harder you try to find masculine role models in this warm-and-fuzzy film, the more lost you feel.


Ned (Paul Rudd) is an organic gardener who trusts humanity enough to sell pot to a uniformed cop at a farmer’s market because he tells him he’s had a really rough month and just needs something to help. Sent to jail for six months, when he returns to his farm, he finds his strong-willed hippie (Kathryn Hahn) partner has moved on with a man who is as generically bohemian as Ned.


Unable or unwilling to fight his doppelganger for the former love of his life, all Ned wants is his dog back. When his former partner refuses, our hapless hero leaves broken hearted, returning first to his alcoholic mother’s house and then to each of his sister’s. At an age in which other men in other generations were busy starting families and building careers, Ned can’t even fight for his right to own a dog.

Luckily, Ned’s family is so unorthodox that they accept his unconventional values – or are they?


His family includes crunchy sister Liz (Emily Mortimer), who pushes her

son to play an obscure musical instrument to pad his resume, middle sister Miranda (Elizabeth Banks), who is so obsessed with her career that she has no interest in romance, and his sometimes-bisexual sister Natalie (Zooey Deschanel), who shares her loft with seven people, not including her long-term lesbian lover.


This is a family that seems to have not so much rebelled against Leave it to Beaver values as abandoned them all together. Enlightened and accepting liberals, you would expect these folks to help the feminized Ned find an alternative path, a way of being a man without being manly, but they are much more interested in trying to fix him.


When Natalie’s lesbian lover Cindy (Rashida Jones) tries to psyche him up to fight for his dog, Ned can’t even understand the ritual.


“Who’s the man?” Cindy asks.
“You’re the man?”
“No, you’re the man … Say you’re the man,” Cindy barks.
“You’re the man.”
“No, say I’m the man!”
“Cindy’s the man?”


And so it goes.


The family is just another type of prison for Ned. At his mother’s he’s treated like the child he is, but when he moves in with Liz he bunks with her young child. At Miranda’s he’s just another one of the girls, gossiping over tabloid rumors, and he’s literally in a lifeboat among the hip crowd at Nat’s and Cindy’s place.


Ned cannot hope to fill the empty space left by a father who is not once mentioned, but he also can’t compete against Liz’s unfaithful filmmaker husband, Miranda’s BBF / would-be lover, or Cindy… in each case, the “man-of-the-house” position is filled, and even if Ned wanted to rise to the occasion, the women wouldn’t allow it.


Unexpectedly middle class, the women speak like men, live like men, and have no use for someone who doesn’t keep pace with modern life. Those of us old enough to remember the budding promise of the women’s movement – that women would create a society radically unlike the one men had built – have to scratch our heads at a character like Nat, who seems to defy the masculine order, but reiterates basic chauvinistic values.


The film is actually quite funny and the entire cast puts in great performances. Paul Rudd’s Ned isn’t the burn-out ex-hippie that the Dude was in the Big Lebowski, though it’s hard not to draw connections. If the Dude was searching for a stolen rug that once tied his living room together – and by extension created cohesion and sense of his absurd life – Ned is looking for the unconditional acceptance of his dog.


With everything that has happened to the male character this year, it’s almost possible to pine for the new Mission Impossible film, which may not repair what has been lost, but will at least return us to our once cherished gender clichés.


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