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Sundance 2011: 'My Idiot Brother' wants to be something smarter

January 23, 2011 | 11:51 am

In its more than two decades of providing the filmgoing public with some pretty great movies, the Sundance Film Festival has mastered a genre that few festivals, let alone filmmakers, ever pull off: the quintessential American dramatic comedy. Whether it was the wry suburban ennui of "Little Miss Sunshine" or the heartfelt despair of "(500) Days of Summer," to take two recent examples, Sundance has deftly straddled the comedy-drama divide.

That was the tradition Jesse Peretz was seeking to follow, and further, with "My Idiot Brother," which going into the festival was perhaps the most buzzed-about movie in a weekend packed with high-profile screenings. The expectations, which may or may not have been fulfilled, derived in part from the film's seriocomic ambitions, and in part from its significant star power. (As some film insiders noted, the movie also had a notable pedigree -- it was financed by the people who funded "Little Miss Sunshine" and produced by the man who gave us "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." Sunshine, sunshine everywhere. The movie, though, has not yet found a distributor.)

"Brother" explores the ultra-honest and childlike (but not quite slacker) life of a granola-eating underachiever named Ned (Paul Rudd), who values honesty so much it tends to get him into trouble. The irked victims of his naivete are usually his three sisters (played, in a kind of Shakespearean triangle, by Emily Mortimer, Elizabeth Banks and Zooey Deschanel).

When we interviewed them at a dinner following the movie's premiere, the actors who took on Peretz's genre-dancing challenge said they were aware of what they were attempting.

"It's not easy to do a drama that's also a comedy," said Mortimer, who plays the closest thing the movie has to a heroine, a solicitous wife and mother who's trying her best to understand her life (and her husband's lechery). "You can run into the question of whether it's fish or fowl. But when it works I think it works better than anything else. I think it's sublime."

Rudd, who seems to have a penchant for such hybrid material (see: James L. Brooks' "How Do You Know"), says he knew well the minefield he was facing. "There have been a lot of stoner characters in comedies, and there was a temptation to play it broad like that," he said. "But 'Idiot Brother' here is a little bit of a misnomer. A lot of what I was trying to do is show something else -- that if you're willing to give a higher version of yourself, other people will step up too."

The most telling comments came from Peretz himself, who said that despite the movie's strenuous appeal to our collective funny bone, it was emotional truth he was really after. "There's a lot of broad comedy out there and that's fine," he said. "But it's not what I respond to. Every moment of comedy has to be rooted in reality. You have to believe in everything the characters are doing. You have to believe that there are real human beings doing these things or it will never be funny."

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Paul Rudd and Emily Mortimer in "My Idiot Brother." Credit: Sundance Film Festival