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Jason Wallis ‘Idiot Brother’ is a skillfully done character study

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Jason Wallis

Posted: Friday, September 2, 2011 8:02 am

Times like these, you have to seek comfort wherever you can find it. I often look to movies for some extra degree of solace, and it seems that sometimes it can be found in the unlikeliest of places.

It is in this spirit that I recommend not one but three films this week, all of which in their own distinct and sometimes subtle ways make the viewer feel just a tad bit better about the world we live in. They do not achieve this effect via any conventional means (e.g. “heart-warming” stories, pat characterizations, emotional manipulation, etc.), but rather by adhering to a set of social ethics and doing their small part to better society.

Admittedly, these films can at times be panic-inducing and horrific (see pick No. 2 in particular) or seemingly superfluous (“Our Idiot Brother,” now playing nationwide in what is, unfortunately, going to end up as a very limited engagement). The final pick is absolutely gut-wrenching, but recent headlines have given its story a faint yet important silver lining.

In any case, they have each done their part to make my week more bearable and ebb my increasingly bleak view of this entire sick circus we like to pretend is a functional society. On a lighter note, things will be significantly less weighty next week as we look at the found-footage thriller “Apollo 18.” (“Shark Night 3-D” got nixed because, as reader Chris Wallace points out, it is rated PG-13 and is therefore likely to be worthless. Oh, well.)

I almost skipped “Our Idiot Brother” this week in favor of “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” but as usual critical consensus ended up guiding my decision. Once again I am glad I heeded word of mouth, because instead of the pleasant but disposable hipster comedy I was expecting, I found a skillfully layered, penetrating character study that deserves comparisons to some of the better works of Woody Allen. This is entirely removed from the rest of the comedies we have seen this summer -- as good as some of them have been, none have even approached the level of genuine comic pathos on display here.

This layering of rich characterizations, alternately gentle and pointed humor, and philosophical subtext (the most dense I’ve seen since in a comedy since “Leaves of Grass”) can probably be attributed to screenwriter David Schisgal, a former Harvard philosophy student with a background in documentaries, rather than studio stooge Jesse Peretz. The director showcases an unusual visual flair, and it’s rare that modern comedies are able to invoke subtle flashes of New Wave or otherwise impressionistic influence, as Peretz does here. But it is ultimately the strength of the film’s script and performances that set it apart.

The plot of “Our Idiot Brother” is like a heady mix of “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “The Jerk” and De Sica’s neorealist classic “Umberto D.” (complete with a probing of social plights facing outcasts). Paul Rudd stars as Ned, a goofy but affable organic farmer who, as the film opens, is busted for selling marijuana to a uniformed cop. A few months later he is released for good behavior and finds that his formerly happy life has been upended: his shrewish girlfriend has “moved on” with an even more dimwitted acid casualty, and refuses to let Ned see his beloved golden retriever, Willie Nelson.

The rest of the film charts Ned’s progress (or lack thereof) as he endeavors to save $1,000 to get his own place to stay and prove he can take care of Willie Nelson. Meantime he must shack up with whichever of his three more successful sisters will take him in, but the situation is complicated by the fact that Ned simply does not know when to shut up. His “big mouth” invites painful consequences, such as when he unintentionally spills the beans about various infidelities surrounding his sisters’ relationships.

But Ned means no harm, and is actually the only completely decent, reasonable person in his entire family. It is through this character that Peretz and Schisgall fashion a lean, effective, sometimes nasty but always rewarding slice-of-life that says more about how people relate to one another than most serious films do, without ever seeming to “say” anything at all. It’s a modest film with no clearly telegraphed message, tied together by Rudd’s very impressive centerpiece performance. I’ve been a fan for decades, but this is the first time I’ve seen Rudd give an actual, honest-to-goodness, nuanced performance. Either he has grown significantly as an actor in the past few years, or Ned is simply the role he was born to play.

"Our Idiot Brother" is rated R for profanity, nudity and sexual content.

Deliver us from evil

I’ve been on a bit of a documentary kick lately, and recently saw two that I feel morally obligated to recommend. The first is “Inside Job,” which won last year’s Oscar for best documentary feature but remained unseen by me until a few days ago. I’ve watched it four times since then, and am hard-pressed to think of a more important film from the past several years.

Directed by Charles Ferguson (of the exceptional Iraq war analysis “No End in Sight”), the film is a clear, concise, point-by-point examination of how the global financial crisis of 2008 occurred. Broken into easy-to-digest chapters focused on different facets an elaborate Ponzi scheme perpetrated by the world’s major power-players, the film makes a case that is simply impossible to argue against. An enemy of political partisanship and even ideology itself (after all, a blind adherence to anti-regulation dogma is largely what got us into this mess), Ferguson takes no prisoners in his exhaustive probing of everything from the savings and loan scandals of the 1980s to recent white-collar shenanigans involving sub-prime mortgages and derivatives markets.

By the end you will be angry, and the film serves, above all else, as a call to action for true patriots -- those who care about the state of their country and the people in it, rather than the success or failure of various political parties or ideologies. The film argues that the system can be fixed, with a minimal amount of sanity and regulation, and that change is worth fighting for. While I am still of the opinion that the America we know will simply not exist in another 20 years, Ferguson’s film is, in some small but vital way, damn inspiring.

I first saw “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills” around the time of its release 15 years ago (I recently caught half of it again on IFC), and I remember being completely transfixed by its account of the child murders in Arkansas that resulted in the wrongful conviction of the West Memphis Three: Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin, anti-social teenaged friends who were unfortunate enough to draw their community’s attention following the brutal rape and murder of three young boys in the woods surrounding their town. Despite clearly coerced “confessions” and a lack of any actual evidence whatsoever, the trio was charged in the court of public opinion and effectively convicted before the case ever went to trial.

With ignorance and religious fervor gripping the community, the defendants were railroaded by a broken justice system that, structurally speaking, never even allowed them a chance to prove their innocence. It’s the kind of story that makes one ashamed to be an American, or a member of the human race at all, for that matter. This is a long, arduous, infinitely disturbing chronicle that pulls no absolutely no punches in its depiction of both tragedies that occurred around West Memphis. Yet, through all the pain and suffering, there are some very positive things to glean from “Paradise Lost.”

First, the fact that the film was made at all is quite encouraging -- the vast majority of people may be animals governed by nothing except their own instinct for self-preservation, but there are those who are willing to stand up for fight for what’s right, even if they are themselves vilified in the process. In addition, the story gets an important silver lining: Last month the West Memphis Three were released from prison. They will be registered as convicted felons for life and will always be branded as child killers by idiots who have no idea what they’re talking about, but the fact that they won’t rot away in prison is enough to bolster my confidence in our society just a tiny little bit.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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