Saturday, April 20, 2024

Movie Review Roundup: ‘Our Idiot Brother’ and ‘3D Sex and Zen’

You can say one thing about film director Jesse Peretz: He sure can assemble a dynamite cast. Whether that shrewd eye for casting has resulted in any films of value is another story. His 1997 debut, “First Love, Last Rites” was a middling, meandering romantic drama that showcased the work of a number

of underrated character actors, like Giovanni Ribisi, Robert John Burke, Natasha Gregson Wagner and Donal Logue. His 2006 comedy “The Ex” was excruciatingly unfunny, but its cast was peerless: Peretz managed to attract Jason Bateman, Amanda Peet, Zach Braff, Amy Poehler, even Mia Farrow and Charles Grodin.

Peretz’s latest film, the Paul Rudd vehicle “Our Idiot Brother,” which opens in most theaters Friday, is considerably better than either of these movies, but it suffers milder symptoms of the same disease: His predictable, middlebrow material is no match for his imminently charming players. Only this time, they carry the picture enough that it’s almost easy to overlook its tired formula.

Rudd stars as Ned, a shaggy, clueless hippie who looks like Jesus in a two-bit passion play. Leaving prison after being busted for selling marijuana to a uniformed police officer (he’s not very bright), Ned finds that his old girlfriend, his old dog and his old home are now off limits. He’s subjected to crashing at the pads of his three self-absorbed sisters, who constitute an It List of indie-chick hotness: There’s Zooey Deschanel, a free-spirited spoken-word artist involved in a lesbian relationship with lawyer Rashida Jones (there’s a straight-guy fantasy if ever there was one); Elizabeth Banks as a domineering, wannabeVanity Fair reporter; and Emily Mortimer as a harried mother of two married to Steve Coogan’s philandering documentary filmmaker.

Ned’s sisters and their extended families, while situationally relatable, do some pretty terrible things throughout the course of the picture, and Ned is always the root cause of their revealed indiscretions. Ned is a noble idiot, honest where the rest of the society hides dirty secrets that threaten their seemingly comfortable lives. Eventually, everyone falls into a state of tumult, but this being an unchallenging Hollywood movie, there’s never any question that everything will turn out fine and dandy in the end.

What’s surprising is that “Our Idiot Brother” is less funny that you’d expect it to be; most of the time, either the jokes don’t work or they’re not there to begin with. Four films in, Peretz has yet to develop a strong sense of rhythm or comic timing, and for a movie without any dramatic tension, its paucity of ha-has is all the more noticeable.

At least Peretz’s cast, as usual, has chemistry and panache. Coogan is a multitalented performer dying to break out of his character’s pedestrian shell, Mortimer is convincing as a woman in a collapsing marriage and Jones, buried behind square glasses, pantsuits and a butch haircut, is a fiery, scene-stealing dynamo. It may be all for nothing, but “Our Idiot Brother” is a pretty enjoyable nothing.

Unlike “Our Idiot Brother,” my other film this week can’t be criticized for being familiar. So far, the Coral Gables Art Cinema has been the only theater in

the state of Florida brave (or foolish?) enough to book “3-D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy.” Billed as the world’s first 3D erotic movie – I hesitate to use the phrase “adult” movie given the film’s real target audience – “Sex and Zen” contains plenty of the former and very little of the latter, along with a lot of gimmicky, in-your-face dagger-throwing violence and a pat “love everlasting” message.

Shot in Cantonese and filmed in Hong Kong, “Sex and Zen” was banned in China but played to packed houses elsewhere in Asia, where it bested the returns of “Avatar.” Here in the states, it’s an art-house movie by distribution only; most major theater chains with 3D capability would never plays something this “obscene,” landing it in the few offbeat houses that will.

In truth, “Sex and Zen” is pretty dull. To our jaded western eyes, the self-censored sexual intercourse is strictly softcore; HBO’s “Real Sex” is more graphic. It’s similar to the tradition of “pink cinema” or “Roman porno” movies that infatuated Asian filmgoers in the ‘70s, only with a weaker story: Hiro Hayama plays an under-endowed man unable to satisfy his beautiful new wife. So he strikes a Faustian bargain (yes, I just compared “Sex and Zen” to Goethe) with a gender-bending master of sexual techniques who … well, I’m probably not allowed to print what happens next. Suffice it to say that he emerges a more potent man, which causes plenty of unforeseen problems and a boatload of cartoonish violence that’s as uninspired as any factory-made Hollywood actioner.

As for the reason most people would see this picture in the first place? Believe me when I say that the novelty of seeing people have porny sex in 3D wears off after about 10 minutes, leaving the viewer numb and unaroused to the endless procession of Caligulan hedonism that plays out over, and over, and over, in a 129-minute running time that feels like three hours. First-time director Christopher Sun Lap Key tries to punctuate the intercourse with humor, which is where he finds his only gross-out success. There’s some genius slapstick here in a couple of rivetingly funny set pieces. But the rest the time, I was simply bored. And no film titled “3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy” should be boring.

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