It runs in the family

"Our Idiot Brother" co-writers (and siblings) Jesse and Evegina Peretz explore the universal complexities of family life.

Jesse Peretz311 (photo credit: courtesy/JFF)
Jesse Peretz311
(photo credit: courtesy/JFF)
If you were to meet Jesse Peretz after you saw his movie, the sophisticated comedy of manners Our Idiot Brother, which was shown at the 28th Jerusalem Film Festival last week, you might think that he has a lot in common with the title character, a hippie played by Paul Rudd who is a little too spacey and laid back for his own good.
But that would be a superficial first impression, exaggerated by the fact that Peretz and his family (he is visiting Israel with his wife and two young children) are all jet-lagged and Peretz hasn’t had his first cup of coffee yet.
The New York-based director, who co-wrote the screenplay with his sister, Vanity Fair writer Evgenia Peretz, and her husband, documentary filmmaker David Schisgall, starts perking up even before he has finished his first cup of weak hotel java (“Even the smell is good,” he says).
“I’m interested in the intensity of the relationships of adult siblings,” he says.
“Evgenia and I are two out of four kids. There are a lot of families where the siblings do have a good relationship in their 20s, but when you turn the corner into having your own kids, thinking of your parents differently, starting to see them as people who won’t be around forever, then the dynamic can change. We wanted to take the case of a family where everyone is really and fundamentally different, incredibly distinct people, but who have made a commitment to staying close.”
The title character in the movie is Ned, a stoner who gets torn from his relaxed life of organic farming early in the film (in a funny scene that I won’t reveal here), and ends up having to crash at his sisters’ apartments.
While his sisters love their chronically underemployed brother, they are all busy New York types, dealing with their own crises. The story of Ned’s journey through the sisters’ lives is an occasion for a gentle but very funny satire of urban life.
It helps in telling this story that Peretz has assembled an outstanding cast. Paul Rudd, who appears in nearly every frame, has become a huge star in recent years due to his low-key but incredibly funny performances in a string of hits, many of them directed or produced by Judd Apatow, including Knocked Up and I Love You, Man.
“I developed it particularly for Paul,” says Peretz.
Peretz directed Rudd in comedy, The Chateau, a decade ago, before Rudd’s career became so hot. When Peretz gave him the screenplay for Our Idiot Brother, “He committed to it abnormally quickly – in about 24 hours.
He was instantly psyched to play the character. He’s not playing Ned as a stoner idiot, but he’s getting a grip on who this guy is.”
ONCE RUDD was on board, the rest of the excellent cast quickly followed suit. Emily Mortimer (who has appeared in Woody Allen’s Matchpoint and Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island) plays Liz, the timid mother of two who is in thrall to her far more dominant documentary filmmaker husband, Dylan (played by literate British funnyman Steve Coogan). Zooey Deschanel (who recently starred in Yes Man and 500 Days of Summer) is Natalie, a lesbian who dreams of doing stand-up comedy and lives with her liberal lawyer girlfriend (Rashida Jones) in a Brooklyn loft with seven other people. The third sister, Miranda (Elizabeth Banks, currently starring in 30 Rock), is a Vanity Fair writer who can’t quite seem to get the story she needs.
Asked what it was like writing a character who works at the same place she does in real life, Evgenia Peretz, who is also visiting Israel with her young son for the festival, says, “Initially, we planned to have the character work at W [a fashion magazine]. But then when we were looking around for a location, I asked Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, if we could shoot there, and he said, Of course you can. He suggested some changes to make it more realistic for a Vanity Fair writer.”
While she notes the movie is far from a documentary, she admits there is a “realistic dynamic.” She also finds something to identify with in the whole satire of the New York competitive parenting scene, as the characters Liz and Dylan don’t want Ned to roughhouse with their son or even watch clips from The Pink Panther on YouTube.
“There is a certain kind of competitive family that has unrealistic expectations for their kids,” she says.
Both Peretz siblings are used to being asked about their family, because their father is Martin Peretz, the editor emeritus and former owner of The New Republic, known for his passionate and sometimes combative commitment to his political ideals (and who has been a generous contributor to many Israeli institutions).
Jesse Peretz says now that he’s become a father himself, he respects the fact that what his parents cared about regarding him and his siblings was “doing well in school, taking studying seriously... that seeped into my DNA.”
When Jesse became a founding member of the punk band the Lemonheads (with Evan Dando) in the ’80s, his father was “completely supportive.” And they continued to encourage him when he began directing music videos and movies. But although his films may poke fun at the politics of the both the Right and the Left, Peretz is not eager to make any kind of explicitly political statement. He does admit to being interested in politics.
“If I have some free time at night, I don’t watch all the great TV shows that are on now, but I watch Hardball with Chris Matthews.”
Now that both Jesse and Evgenia Peretz have had their breakfast, it’s time for them to turn their attention to their kids, who had a hard time getting to sleep after the screening of Our Idiot Brother the night before.
“We’re working on another screenplay together,” says Peretz. Again, it’s not autobiographical, although it is about a teenage boy who turns to punk rock music to rebel against his ultra-liberal family. He’s also developing another film about a woman in her late 30s who gets together with a much younger guy.
“Right now it’s called, Grow the F*%k Up. It’s about how it’s OK for people to take different paths, to go in a different way. The title might change, though.”