I have a brother. He is two years younger than me and about five inches taller. Like most siblings, when we were little, we had our moments. We could on occasion play together for hours but we would certainly on many another occasion get into some serious kicking and screaming. Fortunately, unlike most siblings, we managed to find an adult relationship based mostly on respect – based somewhat on trading sarcastic quips back and forth but mostly on respect. Naturally, we have our issues; we are brothers after all. There’s some jealousy here and some competition over there but that’s to be expected and it balances itself out because what we have is real. I wish I could say the same about Jim Sheridan’s “Brothers” but sadly these brothers are too contrived to feel like anything close to the real deal.
The brothers in question here are the Cahill boys, Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Sam (Tobey Maguire). Their history is so cluttered with the kind of rivalry that can only be concocted by a screenwriter. It’s like reading “Brothers for Dummies” at times. Sam is a decorated army captain while, when we first meet Tommy, he is being released from prison. Fortunately, Tommy’s prison release is perfectly timed with Sam’s departure to Afghanistan. This way, the whole family can get together at the dinner table one last time and, because what would a family dinner be without this, the whole family drama implodes before dessert is served. You see, Daddy (Sam Shepard) is a bit a of a drinker and a former army man himself so you know which of his sons is his favorite. Oh why can’t Tommy be more like his brother, Sam? His father actually asks that. That was the first time I groaned.
What makes “Brothers” watchable, and it is watchable, is the incredibly engaging young cast. Along with Natalie Portman, Gyllenhaal and Maguire dig their boots into this family’s roots, no matter how intentionally tangled they are. They each brave through the warzone of manipulation that is this film’s plot to carve out as memorable a character as they can. When Sam is believed to have been killed in Afghanistan what seems like five minutes after he arrives there, Grace (Portman) finds unexpected solace in the brother that stayed behind. The trouble here is that we know that Sam isn’t dead, that he is only being held prisoner by some of the most clichéd Arab men I’ve seen in a while on film. Instead of feeling unhealthy yet potentially cathartic, their budding relationship, and the one Tommy fosters with her two daughters, just feels like filler until Sam inevitably returns.
I’ve come to expect a certain level of excellence from Sheridan. For the most part, he is able to create simple understandings of complex emotions but he was disadvantaged from the start here. Based on a 2004 Danish film, David Benioff’s screenplay is just too forced and his constraints as a writer place restraints on all the talent attached to “Brothers”. Subsequently, everyone is trying way too hard to make this work when the only way to bring peace to siblings split by life’s different paths is just to get them together and let it happen all by itself.
Review by Joseph Bélanger