As a general rule, we do not make jokes at the expense of the handicapped. The bitterly funny, just-sweet-enough My Blind Brother gets away with it because the jokes aren’t about his blindness per se, and because the vision-impaired gentleman in question is a total bastard. Total bastards are fair game, joke-wise.
The basic premise is established in the first scene, when blind Robbie (Adam Scott) is lavishly praised for running a marathon while his brother Bill (Nick Kroll) – who ran alongside him the whole way to keep him safe – is completely ignored. Local news media fawn all over Robbie, who’s often doing this sort of thing for charity, as do the boys’ parents. As far as the world is concerned, Robbie’s a saint and Bill’s a nobody.
But Robbie’s actually selfish and unthoughtful, ungrateful for his brother’s help in private and fake-humble in public. He has a canned joke he makes every time he’s interviewed (“You look very beautiful today”) that always results in a self-satisfied smirk. All of the kind things people have said about his bravery and stoicism have gone to his head. Bill, ever dutiful and a little guilt-stricken, suffers in neurotic silence. OK, sometimes he complains to his blind stoner Vanilla Ice-looking friend, GT (Charlie Hewson). But mostly he suffers in silence.
Enter Rose (Jenny Slate), the woman who will come between Robbie and Bill. Also neurotic and guilt-stricken (she blames herself for her ex-boyfriend’s death), Rose is a good match for Bill and has a drunken one-night stand with him. She blows him off after that, but they meet again when she embarks on some conscious-soothing volunteerism and coincidentally becomes Robbie’s new guide. And then Robbie’s new girlfriend. Robbie, of course, doesn’t know about Bill and Rose’s prior connection. He does want Bill to tell him how pretty Rose is, though, so he knows whether he should be seen with her.
Robbie’s inability to see what’s going on around him, both literally and figuratively, is a big part of the humor in the film, which was written and directed by Sophie Goodhart as an expansion of her 2003 short. Robbie’s clueless about how insensitive he is, and he’s oblivious to Bill and Rose’s furtive behavior, even when it’s happening in his presence. You can see the humorous potential in that, and Goodhart caught a break casting three well-trained comedy stalwarts as her leads. Kroll excels at playing frustrated losers; Slate has an endearing trainwreck quality to her; and Scott, notwithstanding his gentleness on “Parks and Recreation,” is really good at being a brittle jerk.
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Goodhart pitches most of the humor at farce level, with human behavior exaggerated for comic purposes but kept within the real-world bounds of cause and effect. The tricky thing about farce is that it often has no emotional weight and serves no purpose except to be blithely funny – so it has to be REALLY funny to compensate for its lack of elements we normally want our entertainment to have (warmth, relatable characters, etc.). “My Blind Brother” is frequently hilarious, and it winds up having just enough real emotion to keep it grounded, even as Goodhart wisely refrains from selling out and ending the story with hugs and understanding, like most comedies would. We really enjoy disliking (and laughing at) Robbie, and Goodhart would never be so cruel as to take that away from us.