Damn that Paul Rudd. Is anyone more believable as a beloved relative? What began in 1995's Clueless as the dorky-but-loving counterweight to Alicia Silverstone's ditzy-but-lovable high school princess has evolved, through iterations of brotherliness (Role Models), helplessness (I Love You, Man) and deadpan-dependent drollness (The 40-year-old Virgin), into a 16-years-later apotheosis called Our Idiot Brother, directed by frequent Rudd collaborator David Wain. At this point one suspects — and congratulates — Rudd not of acting but of simply being himself on camera to such effect that we recognize every goof he makes as one we have almost made, every emotion he betrays as one we have almost felt.

Unfortunately, an achievement of this kind by an actor does not usually turn up on the Oscar radar; the Academy typically prefers to honor spectacular transformations over subtly drawn-out demonstrations of comedic strength. There is a scene near the end of this film, however, which takes place in the middle of a game of charades, that represents the kind of character-driven explosion of tension that many similar films reach for but fail to ensnare. Rudd, at the epicenter, deserves credit for every tremor felt throughout.

And yet if he's anything like his character Ned (and I've already said he is), then Rudd would act accordingly as the epitome of niceness and either shrug off reward or accept it blithely as a turn of surprisingly good luck. Ned is so nice he takes pity on a police officer employing the most manipulative and morally corrupt methods to bust him. He is so nice he almost follows through with a MMF threesome out of fear of being misunderstood as homophobic. He's so nice he remains non-agressive toward everyone, even his ex-girlfriend who spitefully and cruelly withholds his beloved Willie Nelson, a dog. Taking their cue from Dickens, screenwriters David Schisgall and Evgenia Peretz situate Ned's grotesque inoffensiveness in a setting where it would be most inhospitable: New York City.

Raised along with three sisters on Long Island, Ned is the granola-loving, organic-farming pothead too sweet to be an ingredient in the city's bitter salad. His sisters, though, have each found their place: Emily Mortimer plays an UWS townhouse mom married to a European filmmaker/philanderer, Elizabeth Banks an uptight magazine journalist headed for hell in a handbag, Zooey Deschanel a jaded lesbian Brooklynite tying herself up in Rashida Jones' suspenders. It's not clear whether these actresses have been underserved by stereotypical roles or if they were deferentially too willing to let Rudd have all the fun; either way, the scenes in which the family idiot is absent come across as the weakest and least fun.

Aside from wanting to entertain us with muted ironies and occasionally tug at our heartstrings, Our Idiot Brother does arrange a certain clockwork that adds up to — in the end — the chime of a message. As a parable for the film as a whole, Ted's inoffensiveness illustrates a crossroads that quickly becomes a conundrum: if you offend no one you come off as stupid; if you decide midway through your mellow yellow life to assert yourself, you come off, if only by contrast, as offensive. Like many films in desperate search of a happy ending, Our Idiot Brother draws this line between kindness and assertiveness only to try — annoyingly, impossibly — to erase it.

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