It's hard to sit through Our Idiot Brother without a sense of unfulfilled anticipation: Surely with this much intelligence involved both behind and in front of the camera, there has to be something more meaningful here than "being nice makes the world a better place." Right?
There is a little more to it than that, but never enough to save the film from feeling flimsy and artificially feel-good, with all the depth of a clever bumper sticker. Perhaps that line of thinking is exactly what the film is arguing against. After all, Paul Rudd's guileless manchild mends his three sisters' personal lives by extracting their self-perpetuating complications, so obviously we'd all be better off just chilling out and telling the truth.
After being tricked into selling pot to a uniformed police officer, ingratiating hippie Ned serves a short stint behind bars, after which he's given the boot by his ex and forced to live successively with each of his sisters: confused free spirit Natalie (Zooey Deschanel), ambitious journalist Miranda (Elizabeth Banks) and suffering housewife Liz (Emily Mortimer). Ned complicates each of these situations simply by approaching them honestly and being unable to navigate the convoluted narrows of lies and secrets his sisters have been using to get through their days.
Ned is saved from Gumpian idealization by Rudd's performance, which makes full use of his boyish openness but slyly hints at a guiding wisdom behind the smiling innocence. Fortunately, he's given far more modest aims than Tom Hanks' savant, entrusted to be the prime mover of modern American history; all Ned wants is his dog back and a place to crash. His frustration that everyone else is working at cross-purposes to these ends peeks through even his unflappable "live and let live" acceptance. There's more to Ned than meets the eye, and his naÏveté may be more choice than nature, leaving open the question of whether he stumbles into saving his sisters' lives or actively pursues the task.