Sunday, January 16, 2011

"Brothers" (2009)

Starring Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal and Natalie Portman
Written by David Benioff
Directed by Jim Sheridan

Brothers [Blu-ray]Sometimes you come across one of these Oscar-bait dramas, and it's totally worth it.  Sometimes, it's just not.  Such is the case with "Brothers" - a sort of melodramatic take on "The Odyssey" starring Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal and Natalie Portman.  It's really not that "Brothers" is a bad film, but it just lacks a certain something that makes it great.  It has great performances and an intriguing subject matter, but something about it doesn't gel.

Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) is a loving husband and father, but he's also a captain in the United States Marine Corps.  His brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) on the other hand is a bit of a failure, just released from prison, with little direction in his life.  Sam's wife Grace (Natalie Portman) disapproves of Tommy, considering his criminal record.  Sam and Tommy's father, Hank (Sam Shepard) also disapproves of Tommy, and makes no bones about it.  When Sam is sent back to Afghanistan and then declared dead, Tommy begins to spend more time with Grace and her two daughters, Isabelle and Maggie.

But Sam isn't actually dead - he's being held captive by the enemy in Afghanistan, tortured.  At one point, he's forced to kill a fellow Marine in order to save his own life.  Eventually, he's rescued and returned home.  But he's traumatized, emotionally, but his experiences.  And he returns to find that Grace and Tommy have become close; his own children would rather spend time with Tommy than with Sam.  He begins to suspect that Tommy and Grace have been carrying on a sexual relationship.

While Sam's life has fallen apart, Tommy has stepped up, finding a purpose for himself in being a companion to grace and a father figure for her children.  But the problem with Sam's insistence that they're having sex is that they actually aren't.  The relationship between the entire family begins to fall apart as Sam's distance and paranoia leads to lashing out violently at his family.

There's nothing really wrong with "Brothers," as I said, it's certainly not a bad film.  It's pretty good, but other than the great performances of its cast, it's really not all that great.  It's just lacking a certain something, very difficult to explain.  Watching it, I felt somewhat disconnected.  I was enjoying it, but by the time it was over, it didn't leave much of an impression.  The impression I am left with, however, is of the performances of the cast.

The scenes I connected the best with were the ones in which we get to see Tommy growing into his role, taking responsibility and finding some direction in his life.  I honestly would've been okay with the rest of the movie if Sam hadn't returned and we spent the rest of our time with a drama about a man finally coming of age when he steps up to help his brother's broken family.

But Sam does come back.  Maguire does fine in these scenes, the best being his explosive breakdown at the film's climax, but overall he feels like the weak link here.  Gyllenhaal and Portman do better, though Portman's role feels slight somehow.  Gyllenhaal therefore seems to carry the most weight, indeed the film seems to mostly be about him.

So "Brothers" is a decent enough drama, and probably even an important one for trying to tackle the kind of psychological trauma that our vets can suffer from after their experiences overseas, but I can't really call it a great one.  Something about it just doesn't connect, though the cast is more than able and the film isn't long enough to outstay its welcome.  Is it worth watching?  I'd say so, but don't expect to fall in love with it.