It's fair to say, Paul Rudd is something of a one-note actor. But to his credit, that one note does vary from movie to movie, and whatever character he's playing at that moment, whether it's the nice guy mensch of "Clueless" or the cynical sourpuss of "Role Models" or the carefree space cadet of "Forgetting Sarah Marshall", Rudd plays it with just enough boyish earnestness to make his single and solitary note a sweet one.
In "Our Idiot Brother", Rudd's character is a Jesus-groomed Neo-hippie named Ned who has the kind of spirited, untroubled disposition that Rudd can sink his teeth into, because, essentially, Ned is one note of unflappable ease and joviality -- he's all boyish, kindhearted earnestness.
But to the rest of the world, Ned is a misfit and a loser; he doesn't have a problem in the world, it's the world that has a problem with him. He's Jeff Lebowski with a heart, a brain-fried, stammering bum who can't help getting caught up in everyone else's busy schedules, because he's comfortably without one. In the opening scene, Ned peddles rhubarb from a stand at the local Farmer's Market. "It's Willy Nelson's poop that gives it that shine," he says with a smile to a customer. Willy Nelson is his dog, a golden retriever, but Ned's sales pitch has the casual ignorance that sums up his character. In time that same oblivious nonchalance gets him into trouble: he sells weed to a uniformed cop, not so much because he's an idiot (I mean, he is an idiot) but because he sympathizes with the cop's sob-story swindle. It sets the stage for an entire film based around a guy whose best intentions often cause more harm than good.
Ned's look accentuates his offbeat persona -- he's all jean shorts, sleeveless shirts and sandals. He has a glued-on grin with an uncanny ultra-whiteness (amazing considering the guy probably hasn't been to a dentist in epochs) and a squinty-blue gape that makes him at once glowing and amiable but still annoyingly peculiar. (If you met him on the street you'd wonder, "What the hell is this guy so cheery about?") So it's easy to see why his girlfriend Janet (Kathryn Hahn) -- his flower child counterpart with dreads, hemp jewelry and a faux-chill prickliness -- kicks him off their farm after his eight month stint in the slammer. With nowhere to go, Ned takes turns shacking up with his trio of sisters: the go-getter Miranda (Elizabeth Banks), the sensitive housewife Liz (Emily Mortimer) and the bisexual hipster Natalie (Zooey Deschanel). Before long, Ned effectively puts a dent in his sisters' "perfect" lives.
On top of being effortlessly amusing, mostly due to Rudd's hilariously knowable Ned (the kind of person we've all met at one time or another and didn't know whether to slap or kiss), "Our Idiot Brother" has a well-hidden truth that blossoms even out of its sometimes murky narrative: success and failure are malleable states of mind rather than rigid societal stipulations. Ned, the girls' penniless, screw-up brother is, in fact, the only one that has his life together simply because he's the only one that's truly happy with it. The girls are crushed by the stresses of supposed normalcy. Relationships, marriage, work and children: they're suffocated by what society expects of them. It's only after they scapegoat Ned for all their mishaps -- a few infidelities, a botched promotion, a secret pregnancy, etc. -- that they realize that his laissez faire approach to life is the tonic they could all use a bit more of. The film is a tenderhearted and airy comedy that subverts the black-sheep brother stereotype in funny and unexpected ways.
None of it would have been possible without Rudd's commitment to Ned's almost Gump-ian simplicity and otherworldly insouciance. At one climactic point, when Ned finally breaks his happy-go-lucky rhythm, his aggression speaks volumes because it so starkly contrasts Rudd's excellent performance of consistent breeziness. Never before has one-note acting looked so carefully planned out, or bravely insistent.