The ‘90s are back with a vengeance but some parts of the apparently beloved decade belong back in that beloved decade. Case and point: the classic ‘90s magical family movie. Disney’s latest The Odd Life of Timothy Green plays heavily on the visual and musical cues that we children of the ‘90s may recognize from films like The Santa Claus and even Hocus Pocus. The problem is that the film opens that door without fully walking through it.
The Jennifer-Garner starrer rests in a nebulous place between wacky contemporary comedy and a nostalgic throwback. But it can’t be both. Centered on the unfortunate reproductively-challenged couple Jim and Cindy Green (a perfectly adequate Joel Edgerton and Garner) the film follows the duo as they give up on having kids and spend a night with a bottle of wine writing down their won’t-be child’s perfect characteristics with a good old pencil and paper (pay attention now because that pencil part is pretty important). They bury the papers in a box in Cindy’s perfectly-kept garden and while they sleep the box sprouts into a little boy - their little boy only with a few leaves on his legs since he grew out of the ground after all. This part of the story combined with the film’s obvious affinity for the good old days as evidenced by the Greens’ home town and its dependence on a classic pencil factory lends itself to that nostalgic feeling.
It’s a few gratuitous and tonally dissonant moments that throw us back out of our reveries and into an uncomfortable space. Both Cindy and Jim have what should be comically horrible bosses played by Diane Wiest and Ron Livingston respectively. But between Weist’s mind-bogglingly goofy scene in which little Timothy paints her scraggly chin-hair and all and Livingston’s many off-colour moments - including one in which he instructs Jim to fire half the factory staff before lifting an over-sized “THE BOSS” mug to his face - are rather jarring in a film that is largely wistful.
But it’s not totally Odd Life’s fault. Modern audiences demand these sorts of gags in their light-hearted movies. The problem is that it’s up to the filmmakers to give us what we need not what we want. Odd Life’s story is largely melancholy throughout as Timothy’s fate is betrayed in the first two minutes of the film. While some levity is necessary the moments of light need only to come from the film’s main light source: the wonderful little boy at the center of the story.
Ultimately Timothy’s sweetness and Garner’s incomparable ability to create a lovable albeit neurotic mother save the film and allow for an emotionally satisfying end to the family tale. There are just far too many bumps along the way.
The man-child: a staple character for modern comedy and notoriously known for being played one-note. They get the laugh they get out.
But turning the lovable goofball or zoned-out knucklehead into something more is no easy task—which makes Paul Rudd's work in Our Idiot Brother that much more impressive. Rudd's Earth-friendly farmer Ned (the closest thing to a new Lebowski we've seen since the original) finds himself down on his luck after being entrapped by a police officer looking for pot. After a stint in jail he abandons his rural hippie commune for the big city to take shelter with his three sisters. Unfortunately for Ned his three siblings Liz (Emily Mortimer) Miranda (Elizabeth Banks) and Natalie (Zooey Deschanel) are as equally displaced and confused from the ebb and flow of life—albeit with severely different perspectives of the world.
Liz struggles to put her kid in private school and keep her marriage to documentary filmmaker/scumbag Dylan (Steve Coogan) intact. Miranda claws her way to the top of Vanity Fair's editorial staff and shuns her flirtatious neighbor (Adam Scott). Natalie stresses over her commitment issues with girlfriend Cindy (Rashida Jones) leaving little time or patience for Ned's bumbling antics. Sound like a lot of plot? While the manic lives of Ned's sisters click symbolically with his journey to get back on his feet it makes for one sporadic narrative.
Like a series of vignettes Our Idiot Brother never gels but when director Jesse Peretz finds a moment of unadulterated Nedisms to throw up on screen the movie hits big. Whether it's Ned teaching his nephew how to fight accidentally romancing his sister's interview subject or infiltrating his ex-girlfriend's house to steal his dog Willie Nelson the movie relies heavily on Ned's antics and its smart to do so. But thin throughlines for its supporting don't hold a candle to Rudd doing his thing.
And its a testament to Rudd's versatility—the man has done everything from Shakespeare and raunchy Judd Apatow comedies after all—that makes the movie watchable. Rudd gives dimensionality to his nincompoop character allowing darker emotions to creep in when necessary. There's a point in the film when Ned gives up fighting for his type-A sisters' affection and it's some of the best material Rudd's ever delivered. But like one of Ned's lit joints Our Idiot Brother can quickly fizzle out leading to plodding plot twists and sentimental conclusions. Mortimer Banks and Deschanel are great actresses—here they drift through their scenes and come out in the end changed. Because they have to.
Our Idiot Brother tries to take the Apatow model to the indie scene and comes through with so-so results. Only Rudd's able to find something to latch on to to build upon to warm up to. In an unexpected twist it's the man-child who seems the most grown up.