Writer-director Andrew Fleming is one of the best and most underrated makers of comedies today, and his new film “Ideal Home” is delightful in spite of a premise that sounds un-promising.
Steve Coogan and Paul Rudd play Erasmus and Paul, a gay couple who are saddled with Erasmus’s grandson (Jack Gore, “Billions”) after Erasmus’ ne’er-do-well son Beau (Jake McDorman, the upcoming “Murphy Brown” reboot) is arrested. Trying to evade the police in the first scene, Beau gets stuck in a window, and Fleming lingers on a shot of his behind in tighty-whities in a way that somehow feels more kindly than lecherous; certainly there are worse ways to enliven a basically expository sequence.
Erasmus is a popular and snobby TV food show host based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Paul is his producer; they have been together for ten years and they bicker near-constantly. “Part of me wants to stick around just to watch him die,” Paul tells one of their crew, a remark that is so over-the-top in its viciousness that it shows just how much Paul is in love with Erasmus.
The tone of “Ideal Home” can be very sharp, and some of the satirical scenes have real bite. Fleming’s writing is at its best here when he is sending up the exaggerated sensitivity of liberals when they are dealing with a minority and not sure what might offend them.
Erasmus’ grandson was named Angel by his parents, but the boy wants to be called Bill, and this is permitted by his new gay guardians. At a party for Bill, a mother looks at Erasmus and Paul drinking the beer she gave them and says, “Would you rather have white wine?” in a very panicked voice, as if she might have caused them some major kind of offense, and it is the exaggerated scale of her panic that puts over this acute social observation.
In dealing with the fights between Erasmus and Paul, Fleming displays a similar kind of edge and insight. Paul wears a beard and has tattoos on his arms, and he is a somewhat self-consciously masculine gay guy, and so of course he really explodes with anger when Erasmus makes fun of him for trying to sound butch. Coogan is particularly good in this moment, making a wide-eyed, childlike face as if he knows that he has really managed to hurt Rudd’s Paul.
Fleming goes against the grain of modern comedies because he never tries to get laughs with free-floating vulgarities or bathroom humor, and he gets away with his bolder jokes because there is always a sense of hard-earned warmth underneath them. It’s a sensibility that stretches all the way back to his melancholy and sexy second feature film “Threesome” and cult favorites like “Dick” and “Hamlet 2.”
Most unusual of all, Fleming is a comedy director who constructs his films visually to give pleasure, however modestly. Every shot in one of his movies is composed to give a sense of balance and to emphasize the shapeliness of interiors, and his eye is alive to beauty, whether it is the beauty of a pair of lamps or a doorframe or the rear end of the convict father in his underwear. And maybe that shot of Beau stuck in the window does have a purpose, in that he is a notably unsympathetic character; perhaps Fleming is saying, “This guy is a jerk, but at least there’s this in his favor.”
“Ideal Home” contains some big laughs, especially a sex scene between Erasmus and Paul that ends with Erasmus crying, “Oh, ‘Dances with Wolves’!” (It makes sense only in context.) And Rudd brings real cant-deflating style to a moment where Beau priggishly says that he is sober and Paul responds, “So am I. Unlike you, however, I’m going to do something about it.” On the debit side, Bill only wants to eat at Taco Bell, and all of Fleming’s talent can’t make this any more than a blatant commercial.
At 85 or so minutes, “Ideal Home” does not overstay its welcome, like so many lengthy Judd Apatow (and Judd Apatow-influenced) productions, and surely Fleming should be making a feature comedy every year.