December 3, 2009


I’m not sure why Brothers is so shallow.  The plot of a man leaving to fight in a war, presumed dead, his wife developing an emotional connection to his brother, and then the resulting conflict which occurs when the man comes home alive.  The story feels almost biblical but Brothers prefers obvious emotional markers rather than create real conflict between the characters.  In the end, what should be a thematically rich and tense film becomes the story of a man who sacrificed his humanity in order to return to the human relationships that he now finds meaningless.  Thankfully, that man is played by Tobey Maguire who manages to build a full character while everyone else is left to function as plot devices.

Sam Cahill (Maguire) is a good father, husband, and soldier.  His brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the black sheep of the family, but Sammy loves him.  While Brothers doesn’t take the time to develop their relationship like Susanne Bier did in the Danish original, Maguire and Gyllenhaal demonstrate their acting ability by sharing glances and convey the tiny facial expressions of brothers who know each other so well that they have their own personal telepathy.  Nevertheless, Brothers rushes through its introductions when it doesn’t have to and ends up shortchanging the relationships that will define the film.

Soon after his arrival in Afghanistan, Sam’s chopper is shot down and he and a fellow soldier are taken captive by terrorists.  The film then switches back-and-forth between Sam’s ordeal and the grief and healing of Tommy and Sam’s wife Grace (Natalie Portman).  Unfortunately, it plays as if Sam’s storyline is the one that matters and Tommy and Grace’s storyline is the release valve which allows the viewer some amount of joy.  By rushing the the grieving process, the resulting joy feels cheap, and that a new kitchen and ice skating will get you past the five stages lickity-split.  It’s a huge blow to the film and showing Grace crying on her bed or watching old home movies is clichéd shorthand and Tommy barely grieves before he’s trying to find a way to cheer up Grace and her daughters.

The daughters (played by Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare) are another shortcut as they function like a music score that always instructs the audience how to feel.  If the girls are scared, the scene is tense.  If the girls are uneasy, something’s wrong.  If the girls are laughing, it’s a lighthearted scene.  It’s not that either young actress gives a bad performance; it’s that director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, Get Rich or Die Tryin’) removes all subtlety and treats the audience like children by proxy.

Thankfully, Tobey Maguire manages to save the film.  Portman and Gyllenhaal aren’t bad, but they have nothing to work with.  Maguire, on the other hand, really did his homework in studying PTSD and unlike past Iraq/Afghanistan war films where it’s been used as a dramatic crutch, here it’s a crucial part of Sam’s arc.  Watching Sam’s deterioration helps you remember that Peter Parker is a fine character but Maguire’s range goes far beyond doing whatever a spider can.

Without Maguire, Brothers would be completely pointless.  On the page, the film’s structure is too simple and Sam’s downfall is too easy, which denies the movie its potential for real drama and the reward strong ensemble work can provide.  It’s not a bad film and certainly nowhere as awful as the trailer would have you believe, but Maguire is the only thing standing in the way of Brothers being a Hallmark drama.

Rating —– C

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