Sunday, December 06, 2009


Director Jim Sheridan sets the table early on for everything that will unfold in "Brothers." It's a last supper of sorts for the Cahill family, featuring Tobey Maguire as older brother Sam, a Marine captain returning to Afghanistan, and Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), younger by a few years, a roguish reprobate just out of jail.

Though it is Sam's experiences on the frontlines that will ultimately sear and shred the Cahills, dinner turns out to be not a bad starting point. As is often the case in Sheridan's movies, family dynamics will actually be the main course with old fights and simmering resentments served alongside rolls and the rest. Unfortunately, the film goes about as badly as the dinner, overcooked or underdone, depending on the scene.

"Brothers" seemed as if it would be a natural progression for Sheridan. If anything, the stress fractures within families represent the director's strongest and most heartfelt work beginning with his first film, "My Left Foot" in 1989, followed a few years later by "In the Name of the Father" and more recently "In America."

There will be echoes of that passion and poignancy in "Brothers." But unlike the clear voice of those earlier films, Sheridan seems as conflicted as the Cahills about their virtues and failings. The underlying themes -- love, loyalty, decency, duty, honor, betrayal -- that screenwriter David Benioff will use to both bind and break this family seem to bedevil him more than inspire him this time out.

As the film opens, the lines are clearly drawn with soldier Sam the good son and parolee Tommy the black sheep. Family patriarch Hank (Sam Shepard), a retired military man burying his war memories in bad temper and booze, stands in as judge and jury.

Sam is barely back in Afghanistan when news of his hero's death comes, leaving wife Grace (Natalie Portman), daughters Maggie (Taylor Geare) and Isabelle (Bailee Madison) and the rest of the family to grieve. We, on the other hand, don't feel as much of the sting having been prepped by a blitz of ads that Sam has actually survived.

Regardless, everyone is forced to deal with Sam. Grace and the girls must figure out their lives without him, Tommy tries to step into the breech and become the good man Sam was, Sam battles the monster that war is turning him into, and we are left to contend as Sheridan struggles to reconcile the duality of the brothers' souls, mainly Sam's.

The director is usually more at home when his characters are in difficult spots, and Sam is certainly in one after his chopper goes down. The Afghan guerrillas who capture him and the other surviving soldier are merciless. The sinkhole that serves as Sam's cell, like the rest of this slice of war, is deep in metaphors, topped only by the one bruising moment that will change the fate of the soldiers and the course of the film.

Maguire, who soared as the clever crime-fighting Spider-Man, has a tough time moving from model soldier to major head case at the pace Sheridan has set. And the cloying menace that served him well in "The Good German" and might have helped fill in some of the missing emotional pieces in "Brothers" eludes him.

Back on the home front after the funeral, everything has gone soft, which plays somewhat better for Gyllenhaal, who was always hard to buy as a prison tough. Still, when he winds up at the local bar one night drowning his sorrows in shots, he looks more likely to get carded than drunk, which doesn't work so well for the stark contrasts the film is trying to create.

Softness comes naturally to Gyllenhaal -- particularly nice are Tommy's moments with the kids, whose sibling spats serve to remind him of his own -- but it's not a particularly good fit for Portman. She is somehow more believable the colder it gets, whether head sheared and battle ready in "V for Vendetta" or tightly corseted with claws out in "The Other Boleyn Girl."

In "Brothers," she seems more girlfriend than wife, more baby-sitter than mother, and the will-they-or-won't-they with Gyllenhaal is so without fire that any thoughts of bed are more likely to be about sleeping than sex.

Really the problems stretch back to that first disastrous dinner. Though you keep looking for a familial bond, the people gathered around the table never felt related. The only Cahill who is at home in his skin is Shepard's aging warrior, and he's just not around enough to save things.


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