Saturday, August 27, 2011

Our Idiot Brother

MPAA (R) CNS/USCCB (O) Roger Ebert (3 stars) Fr. Dennis (2 ½  stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB review -
Roger Ebert’s review -

Our Idiot Bother (directed by Jesse Peretz, written by David Schisgall and Yvgenia Peretz) is an adult family slacker comedy that presents something of a challenge to a blog like this.  About four adult children -- three sisters and their (“idiot”) brother – the four were clearly raised in the “church of self-actualization,” none of them has grown up to be particularly successful and none of them, except possibly their (“idiot”) brother, finds themselves particularly happy.  From a Catholic Church teaching perspective, all four have led more or less obviously dissolute lives, hence the CNS/USCCB’s more or less inevitable “O” (morally offensive) rating, signaling (in this case perhaps pleading) to viewers “_please_ don’t not end-up like this.” 

In thinking about this movie, and wondering how the heck to write a review about it to fit my blog, it occurred to me that many RCIA directors (catechists working with those who’d like to join the Catholic Church) or even those who’d like to join the Church, may appreciate this movie because it has been my experience that many of those who come wanting to join the Church come from backgrounds like the four siblings in this movie. 

What do I mean?  We live in a time of great freedom, but that freedom can be experienced as chaos and disappointment.   And I’ve certainly had the experience of people sincerely coming to RCIA with the request: “Please just give me 'the Rules.'  I grew-up in a home where there were _no rules_.  There was no dad (or my mom _made sure_ I’d never really know him or anyone from his family), and she herself was a mess.  There was a ‘new uncle’ in our house every couple of months while I still lived at home and ever since then I’ve been drifting ALL OVER THE PLACE.  So for the Love of God, PLEASE help me.”  And as slow as the RCIA process may seem at times, we try, and hopefully give people a Rock on which they can build (or re-build) their lives.

Indeed, a surprising/deceptive pitfall of “self actualization” is that we may actually _fail_ at _precisely_ what we wish to achieve in life.  So in modern speak (and in language actually used by one of the characters in the film) if we base our self esteem on succeeding in a particular aspect of life (or in traditional Biblical-speak where we may "make an idol” of that particular aspect of our lives) and then _fail_ in that aspect of life what then? 

And all four of the siblings in this movie find themselves staring at _failure_ in the aspects of their lives that they’ve chosen to make most important to them.  Miranda (played by Elizabeth Banks) placed her self-esteem in success at work (as a journalist for ‘Vanity Fair’), Liz (played by Emily Mortimer) in marriage and family, and Natalie (played by Zooey Deschandel) in being an “artsy lesbian.”  And all three of them failed.  Miranda finds herself being eaten alive in the dog-eat-dog competitiveness of life at the magazine.  Liz’ “independent film producer” husband (played by Steve Coogan) proves to be a real a-hole, and even ditsy/artsy Natalie screws-up at being a lesbian (yes, that proves possible) breaking the heart of her lover Cindy (played by Rashida Jones) who tearfully/angrily tells Natalie at one point "I can give you absolutely everything, EXCEPT ..."

Staring at failure in precisely the aspects of their lives that each chose to make most important, all three sisters come to “take comfort” in “at least” _looking down_ on their nice but simple mother Ilene (played by Shirley Knight) and their “idiot” brother Ned (played by Paul Rudd) a stoner “organic foods” producer who was just getting out of jail at the beginning of the movie after being busted at a Farmer’s Market by a _uniformed cop_ to whom he was flagrantly entrapped into selling a small amount of marijuana (yes, Ned was that trusting/stupid...). 

Much painful humor ensues (at the various characters’ expense...) as the audience is treated to possibly the most dysfunctional family presented in American film since the release of the film Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

Is there value to such a movie?  I suppose yes.  But hopefully part of that value could be to come to appreciate that our value really _doesn’t come_ from the precariousness of “success” in this world (in whatever aspect we choose try to succeed in) or in “at least being better” (“smarter”, “more together”, etc) than “others” whose lives seem even more messed-up than ours, but we come to see our value comes from our being (_all_ of us) loved by God _despite_ our many, many painful screw-ups and disappointments.

In the rite that the Catholic Church uses for the blessing of homes and of families, the Gospel Reading used is the one in which Jesus talks of “building one’s house on rock” (Mt 7:24-27)  After the Reading, I always say that I can give the “shortest homily in the world” here by simply reiterating Jesus' plea to “build one’s life on Rock.”  I say that sure, it’s possible to live one’s life _without Jesus_.  The experience of the friends and families that surround us, tells us that this is true.  HOWEVER, it's _just so much easier_ to go through life with Jesus/God at our side.

In this movie, the _one thing_ that proves most important to Ned in the chaos of his life is his dog “Willy Nelson.”  And his surprisingly meanspirited/vindictive, organic farming ex-girlfriend Janet (played by Kathryn Hahn) tries to keep the dog away from him.

But as St. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans that “no one can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:39).  No one.  So the rest, objects, people, pets, success or failure _in anything else_ doesn’t really for matter much after all.

And that's perhaps something to remember as one watches this film and watches each of the characters struggle with "screwing up" in exactly the areas of life that they hoped so much to succeed in.

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