- - Thursday, August 25, 2011

“Our Idiot Brother” is not quite an antidote to this summer’s proliferation of crass comedies with overly literal titles — the movie has too much in common with its boorish cousins for that. But its genuine warmth and literary pedigree make it an interesting sidelight to “Bad Teacher,” “Bridesmaids” and “Horrible Bosses.”

The film has a pleasing novelistic sprawl, encompassing the sputtering romantic lives of three sisters who are caught up in trying to care for their vulnerable, credulous brother. Paul Rudd plays Ned, the idiot brother of the title, but this is very much an ensemble effort.

The film opens with Ned experiencing a litany of misfortune worthy of a country song. He gets busted selling a bag of marijuana to a uniformed police officer at a small town farmers market. Upon his release from prison, Ned finds that his girlfriend (a Buddhist biodynamic farmer with a passive aggressive streak) has replaced him with another beau and has decided to keep their dog.

With no place to live, Ned lights out for New York City, to look for help from his family. Oldest sister Liz (Emily Mortimer) is a housewife married to a lecherous, detached documentary filmmaker. She’s caught up in her obsession with molding her son River into a candidate for a competitive private school.

Miranda (Elizabeth Banks) is a self-important and ambitious magazine writer who mostly writes about makeup and lotions. Natalie (Zooey Deschanel) is a bisexual aspiring comedian who is partnered with a female lawyer but chasing men on the side.

How Ned emerged from this urbane, brainy family as a self-invented bumpkin is never quite addressed. It’s a bizarre setup — imagine “The Big Lebowski” meets “Hannah and Her Sisters.” It works as well as it does because the movie gracefully pivots away from Ned, who is a fixed and unchanging character, to dwell on how the sisters handle the chaos and disruption Ned introduces into their lives.

Ned is blessed with an innate sense of decency and trust that drives him to accept people as they are, look for the positive aspects of any situation and always tell the truth. These tendencies put Ned at odds with his sisters, all of whom rely on subterfuge and self-deception to reconcile themselves to the disappointments in their lives.

In this (and, more obviously, in its title) the movie borrows from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel “The Idiot,” which posited that a person who possessed saintly virtues could not survive in human society. The filmmakers behind “Our Idiot Brother” aren’t nearly so pessimistic as Dostoyevsky — this is a summer comedy, after all.

The story alternates between efforts to get Ned his dog back and the sisters’ various romantic mishaps. A gentle humor speeds the plot along, but the jokes aren’t particularly memorable. Instead, “Our Idiot Brother” gets by on the strength of its own humble but firm conviction that being good is its own reward.

★★★

TITLE: “Our Idiot Brother”

CREDITS: Directed by Jesse Peretz; written by David Schisgall and Evgenia Peretz.

RATING: R for nudity, language and sexual situations

RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS