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Brothers (2009)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"How Do You Say "Unnecessary Remake" In Danish?"
2 stars

“Brothers” is like an expensive wristwatch with a dead battery hidden away inside. On the surface, it looks as solid and elegant and respectable as all get out and has all the fancy accoutrements that one could hope for--a talented and attractive cast in front of the cameras, an extraordinarily gifted filmmaker behind them, material that seems as timely and profound as could be hoped for and U2 songs on the soundtrack--but without that battery to make it all come alive, it never works for a minute. It may not be the complete disaster that the nearly year-long delay in its release may suggest but when you compare its promise and pedigree with its ultimate results, there is no getting around the fact that it is one of the more disappointing films of the season.

Based on the 2004 Danish film of the same name from writer-director Suzanne Bier, the film begins as Capt. Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) prepares to leave his family--loving wife Grace (Natalie Portman) and adorable young daughters Isabelle (Bailee Madison) and Maggie (Taylor Geare)--in order to serve his fourth tour of duty in Afghanistan. Just before he ships out, his ne’er-do-well younger brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) returns home after a stay in prison for bank robbery and during a tense reunion dinner, it becomes painfully clear that while their stepmother (Mare Winningham) tries to keep the peace, their father (Sam Shepard) has no use for Tommy and his wayward ways whatsoever and that Grace isn’t much of a fan of him either. Things change when Sam’s helicopter is shot down in combat and he is reported to be dead--after a couple of couple of initial stumbles, Tommy finally begins to step up and take some responsibility by helping Grace in her bereavement by bonding with the kids and remodeling her kitchen while she struggles to pull herself together.

For a while, all is well--the kids adore being with their newly-present Uncle Tommy, Dad is impressed with how he has begun to turn himself around and Grace finds herself unexpectedly bonding with him as well, leading to a moment in which late-night bonding over pot and the music of U2 leads to a single illicit kiss. The two immediately regret that moment and vow to put it behind them but it gradually becomes obvious that there is an unspoken attraction between them. Meanwhile, it turns out that Sam is actually alive and being held by the Taliban along with another Marine (Patrick Flueger) and in his desire to stay alive in order to get back to his family, he is forced to do a particularly horrifying deed just before he is rescued by American forces and returned home to an overjoyed Grace. Unable to fully process or discuss his experiences with anyone, Sam grows increasingly cold and twitchy towards his kids and picks up enough odd vibes from Tommy and Grace to suspect that something happened between them and when Grace admits to the kiss, everything explodes during a climactic family party that makes the one at the beginning seem loose and relaxed by comparison.

In other words, “Brothers” is basically another variation of the old chestnut about the lost soldier who miraculously returns home after being presumed dead and discovers that things have changed in the wake of his assumed demise. This is not a case of a complex story being dumbed down for American audiences because as far as I can recall, this adaptation hews pretty closely to Bier’s original narrative. The difference comes in the ways that the two films approach the material and that is where the old triumphs over the new. Although dealing with frankly soapy and melodramatic material, Bier managed to transcend the potential cheesiness by shooting it in a rough and straightforward manner that brought a welcome level of reality to the proceedings and by telling it mostly through the point-of-view of the character of the wife (played wonderfully by Connie Nielsen) in a manner that helped make the familiar seem fresh. By contrast, director Jim Sheridan and screenwriter David Benioff have gone in the opposite direction by taking a glossier and more blatantly melodramatic approach to the material--using such tricks as plenty of cross-cutting between Tommy and Grace’s growing friendship and Sam’s overseas imprisonment, a few ham-fisted musical montages and the old trick of having a character writing a letter in the first scene for no other reason than to have it read in the last--that only serves to underscore its essential hokiness. By the time the story arrives at what should be its emotionally powerful conclusion, you can practically hear the gears of contrivance grinding away in order to get all of the characters into their respective positions.

Another problem, and a far more surprising one than the lack of narrative subtlety, is the fact that the performances, aren’t very good. Part of the problem is that the major roles have inexplicably been filled with actors who, despite their considerable talents, largely seem to be miscast. In the original, the roles were filled with actors who, while not exactly aged, were old enough to lend an additional sense of gravity to the proceedings. Portman, Maguire and Gyllenhaal are all strong actors but they all seem too young and unformed for their roles and watching them going through their paces is akin to watching a high-school production--they all know their lines and blocking but you never quite believe for an instance that Maguire is a vet on his forth tour of duty, that Gyllenhaal has spent time in prison or that Portman is the mother of two children. The other part of the problem is that the three leads all seem to have been captured on off days. Maguire overplays the twitchiness to such a degree that he eventually makes Bruce Dern in “Coming Home” seem calm and restrained by comparison--he even comes across as a little bit batty during the early scenes in which he is meant to be ostensibly calm and reserved. Along the same lines, Gyllenhaal seems too puppy-doggish to be believable as the troubled Tommy--the kitchen cabinets that he repairs display a more convincing emotional transformation than he does. (It is interesting to think of what might have resulted if the two had switched roles.) As Grace, Portman is supposed to be playing a character who is lost and confused for a good chunk of the time but it too often seems as if she herself is feeling the same--she feels more like a construct than a character and never develops enough chemistry with either of her co-stars to convincingly seem as though she torn between the two.

While “Brothers” is largely a disappointment, it does have a couple of compensations scattered here and there. Sheridan does get some nice work from his supporting cast--the two little girls playing the daughters are sweet and convincing, starlet-du-jour Carey Mulligan (sporting an American accent) has a strong scene as the wife of Sam’s cellmate and Sam Shepard is effective as the emotionally taciturn father. (That said, I would like to point out that, as this film painfully proves, if there is one actor out there who should never under any circumstance be asked to perform any scene in which he informs another character that he is there if they ever want to talk, it is Sam Shepard.) The cinematography by Frederick Elmes does a lovely job of contrasting the harshness of the Afghanistan terrain (played by New Mexico) with the coldly pastoral beauty of home. Unfortunately, “Brothers” is a film that presumably came into being for one primary reason--the refusal of American audiences to sit through a film with subtitles--and despite all the talent involved, it never offers up any other justification for its existence.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=18940&reviewer=389
originally posted: 12/04/09 00:15:24
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User Comments

9/14/17 morris campbell good film imho 4 stars
12/28/09 Maria I was blown away to be treated to a great character drama. Tobey Maguires best performance 5 stars
12/18/09 mike wilson Emotionally charged. Great acting. Compelling plot. 5 stars
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  04-Dec-2009 (R)
  DVD: 23-Mar-2010


  DVD: 23-Mar-2010

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