Our Idiot Brother, possibly the sharpest ensemble comedy of 2011.
  • Our Idiot Brother, possibly the sharpest ensemble comedy of 2011.
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Into commercial territory, then on to higher ground and a fast, hot track:

Our Idiot Brother ***

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Sometimes a movie needs lines such as “Not in front of the chickens” and “He does pottery at the U.N.” The pleasing proof is Our Idiot Brother, possibly the sharpest ensemble comedy of 2011. Paul Rudd is the title figure, Ned, whose female siblings think of him as, well, not an idiot, just a sponger, screwup, and layabout.

Ned, more a Cheech than a Chong, is not dumb. But his “Hey, man” rhythm and lack of ambition make him a reliable punchline for his more focused sisters. His smiling mom (Shirley Knight), deep into wine time, loves him unreservedly. Operating on his rather lunar calendar of importance, Ned has a sweetly trusting spirit. Selling pot to a cop lands him in the clinker. Before long he is out and seeking to regroup with his Long Island family (another mission is to recover his golden retriever, Willie Nelson).

Jesse Peretz directed as well as scripted with sister Evgeni and David Schisgall. They have made a mildly sitcomical but not canned movie, whose people are hip to New York in a fresh, off-kilter way. The film’s matrix, and a great arena for Rudd’s superb reactions, is the sisterhood: bossy, hard-judging Janet (Kathryn Hahn), chic careerist and truth-bender Miranda (Elizabeth Banks), fatigued earth-mommy Liz (Emily Mortimer), and free bird Natalie (Zooey Deschanel, whose pale skin seems made of talcum mist). Natalie is enjoying romance with the entertainingly fem-macho Cindy (Rashida Jones) and surveying the world with cockeyed grace.

Add very enjoyable kid actor Matthew Mindler as Liz’s son and the comedic swiftness of Adam Scott, T.J. Miller, Sterling K. Brown, and impeccably patronizing Steve Coogan (gazing upon Ned as if constipated with contempt). The film is expertly attuned to liberal inclusiveness and PC jargon, to family politics and the sneak-up depth inside Ned’s hippie-dippiness (Rudd may be having the role of his career). The ending is a little too cute but easy to accept.

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark *

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Naming a fright film Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is lame, like calling a musical Sing and Dance. But it worked for the 1973 cheapo starring Jim Hutton and Kim Darby, a cult hit on TV. The new, far more lavish version was written by Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth). Nicely shot by Oliver Stapleton, the design work flaunts its facets, such as the highlights on a banister that match the glinty eyes of gremlins living in the basement.

It’s an Old Haunted House movie, and Guy Pearce is so busy fixing up the place to impress Architectural Digest that he takes forever to notice that his daughter (Bailee Madison) is losing her mind. Girlfriend Katie Holmes is a little more perceptive, seeing that the daughter is haunted by the failure of her parents’ marriage. Since Madison is an earnest little actress, her crisis seems grounded in more than night shadows and the critters who look like hunchbacked bats with kangaroo legs. When childhood fear is exploited like this, it can seem ugly and not very entertaining.

The movie takes too long to wind up its pitch, and in the gore-glut topper the tiny creeps rip at people and jam sharp objects at them. This is hokey, and there isn’t much of a scare payoff. Pearce is too smart an actor to act so dim. Debut director Troy Nixey seems to be leafing through a pattern book of exhausted ideas. When the old, mutilated caretaker (Jack Thompson) warns that the girl must be removed at once from the house, we wonder why the other “adults” resist such sensible advice.

Higher Ground ***

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The higher ground to which Corinne aspires is total submission to Jesus Christ. But she has a questioning mind. As a girl, one of the first books she wanted from the library was Lord of the Flies. Being married to born-again Ethan (Joshua Leonard), whom she met in his rock-musician days, is a big faith test in Higher Ground.

Vera Farmiga directed and stars as adult Corinne. Based on Carolyn S. Briggs’s memoir This Dark World, the movie plunges into a churchy exurbia where the only viable choice is between salvation and damnation. Everyone means well, including Corinne’s cynical dad (John Hawkes) and a friend (Dagmara Dominczyk) who loves sex. There are many kids, and the story is awash in hymns, scripture, baptisms, tests, and testimonials.

Admirably, Farmiga doesn’t opt for facile answers; nobody is caricatured (leave that to Salvation Boulevard). Corinne has a gift for opening her feelings, is loveably tactful, and is clearly an honest searcher. But she is locked into a patriarchal system where women are fertile “handmaidens” and men like Ethan often lean hard on them. Corinne wants some freedom, some poetry, some real talk (the minister, played well by Bill Irwin, is not a fanatic, just one of fundamentalism’s solid salesmen).

This “heartland” story has so many white faces in milky light that you might wonder if it used a new process, Aryan-Scope (the few black faces seem planted for effect). Like Mimi Rogers’s more conflicted pilgrim in The Rapture, Farmiga carries the film with her straight, earnest intensity. She refuses to become a cartoon of religiosity.

As writer and director, she wobbles a bit. Humor often seems unintended, as when damnation talk about “a lake of fire” is followed by cute lines about Egg McMuffins. Animals, like a huge boar that Corinne sees (imagines?) during sex, appear like fallen spirits. Many viewers may feel bewildered by Corinne’s world. Higher Ground is best when Farmiga digs into the efforts of a decent person to make her faith true, not just zealous. Opens September 2.

Senna ***

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Three mediocre movies — Grand Prix, Le Mans, and Winning — killed my interest in Formula One racing. The sport has become so high tech, rules bound, and points driven that it’s amazing the drivers are not robots (is that the next bold advance?).

One of the last champions to stand out humanly was Ayrton Senna da Silva from Brazil. Lean, handsome, a bit gawky, Senna rose from go-karting (which he called “pure racing”) to become a genius of risk. He won three world championships before dying at 34 on the San Marino track.

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