'Our Idiot Brother' director Jesse Peretz nervously awaits premiere

For the last five years, Jesse Peretz has been in director jail.

While he didn't actually sit behind steel bars, he was exiled, he said, to a place where "the phone doesn't ring a lot" after the 2006 release of "The Ex," a romantic comedy he directed starring Zach Braff that earned scathing reviews and grossed only $3.1 million at the domestic box office.

"Let's just say it wasn't a great experience. I wasn't really happy with how the movie ended up," said Peretz, referring to the film's marketing and release, handled by hard-charging studio head Harvey Weinstein.

So when Weinstein arrived at a dinner in Park City, Utah, to fete Peretz's latest movie, "Our Idiot Brother," after its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, the filmmaker was stunned.

"We had a great conversation. He was very complimentary about the movie but also seemed to really grasp how we would market it," Peretz said. "At the end of the night, it was really my choice to go with Harvey."

Indeed, the Weinstein Co. ended up acquiring "Our Idiot Brother," financed for about $5 million by Big Beach Films — the production company behind "Little Miss Sunshine." The film stars Paul Rudd as Ned, a slacker in a state of arrested development as compared with his three type-A sisters, played by Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel and Emily Mortimer. After Ned is arrested for selling marijuana to a uniformed police officer (yes, really), he gets booted out by his girlfriend and is forced to move back in with his family, who urge him to examine his life.

The film, which opens Friday, also involves family in another respect: It was written by Peretz's sister, Evgenia Peretz, a longtime journalist for Vanity Fair, and her husband, documentary filmmaker David Schisgall.

But Jesse and Evgenia Peretz's sibling dynamic bears little resemblance to that of the characters in the film, they said. If anything, Jesse was more the rebellious brother than the idiot one, founding the '80s punk band the Lemonheads, who had their biggest hit with a remake of Simon and Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson."

"I had a bicycle chain with a padlock around my neck that I outfitted with my girlfriend at the hardware store. We each had one. It was a little extreme," Peretz, 43, recalled recently of those high school days as he tried to stave off jet lag after arriving at his Los Angeles hotel from Australia, where he had been promoting the movie.

"He was definitely, like, way cooler than I was," Evgenia, 18 months her brother's junior, added later during a call from New York, where both she and her brother reside. "I was kind of a grind apple polisher, always doing my homework."

That work ethic was largely instilled in the pair by their parents: Anne Labouisse Farnsworth, a social worker and heiress to a sewing machine fortune, and Marty Peretz, owner and onetime editor in chief of the liberal political magazine the New Republic. Their father was also a professor at Harvard University, where both Jesse and Evgenia went to college.

It was a household that brought a wide variety of visitors into the family circle.

"He'll never talk about the amazing people that he's met in his life," said Rudd of Jesse Peretz, with whom he has been friends for more than a decade and first collaborated with on the 2001 comedy "The Chateau." "Sometimes, he'll say things and I'll be blown away. Like, Al Gore used to baby-sit you? You watched the moon landing with Al Gore when you were a baby? Yo-Yo Ma came in and out of your house? Are you kidding me? He's just not a braggart in any way."

In fact, Peretz — whose godfather, documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, taught him how to edit movies — was so anxious about asking Rudd to be a part of "Our Idiot Brother" that he didn't even let his friend know he was working on the project until the script was completed.

"Paul was suddenly busy all the time with these big movies," Peretz said. "Since we had started to work together, his career was definitely on the up-and-up. I just didn't want to put that burden on him of, 'Oh, Jesse is doing this thing.…' I would rather just give him a script I was confident he would like."

Evgenia Peretz also had a connection she wasn't comfortable exploiting.

Like her, Banks' character in the film writes for a magazine — but makes some problematic ethical decisions while interviewing a subject for an investigative piece. Because of those questionable moral choices, Peretz was uncomfortable asking her boss, Vanity Fair Editor in Chief Graydon Carter, if she could use that publication as Banks' character's workplace.

The production instead approached W and Elle magazines about shooting at their offices, but both requests were swiftly denied. So Evgenia Peretz decided to show Carter the script.

"He said, 'We have to have you film here,'" she recalled. "He suggested a few changes — a few references to fashion were basically taken out — but he was very supportive."

Meanwhile, Weinstein has spent the last few months tweaking the film. Since its debut at Sundance, five minutes have been shaved from the picture's running time, and the final scene has been changed — with the growth of Rudd's character winding up on a less open-ended note.

"I think it's better," Peretz said of the change. "It lands in a more satisfying way emotionally." And as for the cuts, Peretz said Weinstein "pressured me to cut more stuff than I might have on my own. But in this case, it was totally all stuff I wanted to do."

One thing that's been a challenge to adjust to, the director admits, is the film's advertising campaign, which is billing the picture as a broad commercial comedy in the vein of Rudd's most recent work, such as "I Love You, Man" or "Dinner for Schmucks." But unlike those movies — where many of the laughs were derived from lowbrow jokes — the humor in "Our Idiot Brother" is largely character-driven, typically arising during awkward family interactions.

"It's taken me a little bit of time to come around to the fact that obviously the movie is getting marketed a little more broad than I think the movie actually is," Peretz said. "The movie is a little less indie than it was at Sundance."

Rudd too thinks the film plays differently than what might be expected. "There's more to it than what some people might think when they hear the title or the cast," he said. "I hope people are going to say, 'Wow, that movie was different than what I thought — but in a good way.' But I wonder if people are going into it thinking it's something it's not, and I don't want them to come out bummed."

Meanwhile, Peretz will be anxiously awaiting the film's reception, because he hopes he'll finally be able to remove the shackles imposed on him by director jail.

"I would love to lie to you and say as soon as I'm done with the premiere, I'm leaving on a vacation or something," he said. "But it is nerve-racking. My past experience has made me realize that what happens in your career, unfortunately, tends to really pivot around where your last work falls in the box-office spectrum. When you realize that, it's hard to totally ignore it."

amy.kaufman@latimes.com

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