Tobey Maguire, Natalie Portman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Mare Winningham, Clifton Collins, Jr.
Based upon a superior 2004 Danish film directed by Susanne Bier, Jim Sheridan's "Brothers" perfectly fits the definition of a "good" film, a film that desperately cries out to be a masterpiece and yet falls uncomfortably short of its potential.
"Brothers" is the story of two brothers, Capt. Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) and Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal). Sam is the honorable of the two brothers, married to Grace (Natalie Portman) with two young daughters (Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare), and protector of his younger, fuck-up brother who is just getting released from a three-year prison stint when Sam is sent back to the war in Afghanistan. When Sam's Blackhawk helicopter is found having been shot down, Sam is given up for dead and Grace, her daughters and Tommy are left to grieve, survive and weave their way through the aftermath of the loss of Sam.
"Brothers" doesn't sugarcoat Tommy and, despite a rather seismic shift in his entire being, he remains in many ways an awkward, emotionally chaotic young man. Yet, Tommy does change in the absence of his brother and, mostly out of a sense of loyalty to his brother, becomes protector and guardian for Grace and the young girls.
Then, the unexpected happens. Sam returns.
Bier's original film, which was a ballsier, more political and far grittier take on this story, carried with it a heavier, more universal tone. Where Sheridan's film may very well transcend Bier's original, however, is in Sheridan's ability to capture the personal toll that the war took on Sam and, in turn, his relationship with this small circle. There is no disguising that upon his return, Sam never really returns. Sam's experiences on the battlefield permeate every aspect of his life and watching this unfold in big and small ways is often mesmerizing in the hands of Gyllenhaal, who creates in Sam a man who is both a macho "man's man" while undeniably returning home a mere shadow of his former self.
Unfortunately, neither Portman nor Maguire are up to Gyllenhaal's performance, though with Portman it feels as much about the Americanization of a film that lacks the sizzle, intensity and raw intimacy of the Danish original. In Bier's original, the chemistry between the two leads was palpable and penetrating and hyper-sexual even as it bubbled just underneath the surface. While Sheridan hints ever so lightly at this chemistry, it is never allowed to surface and, as a result, much of "Brothers" feels like stifled emotions and suppressed vulnerability.
Maguire, on the other hand, simply doesn't resonate as Sam. While it's certainly refreshing to see Maguire go outside his usual role, too much of "Brothers" feels like Maguire is acting rather than living within his character. We get all of the appropriate emotions, yet they never feel authentically manifested or natural.
There are strong moments, incredibly strong ones, but they never seem to add up to a cohesive, powerhouse of a film. There is one scene in particular, a long and patient scene over a family dinner, that makes "Brothers" worthy of a recommendation in and of itself if only to see the magnificent performance of young Bailee Madison, likely one of the finest performances from a young performer in 2009. Yet, screenwriter David Benioff struggles as he did in "25th Hour" to create a film that pulls together in the end.
The entire supporting cast is strong, including the marvelous character actress Mare Winningham, Clifton Collins, Jr., Sam Shephard and a likely Oscar nominee for "An Education," Carey Mulligan.
Tech credits are generally solid, though Thomas Newman's original score plays a bit saccharine and melodramatic given the film's very real goings on. If "Brothers" is a story that intrigues you, do yourself a favor and check out Susanne Bier's original "Brodre" first and marvel at its true mastery.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic