Movie review: Just say no to these 'Brothers'

Al Alexander

Brothers on opposite ends of the moral spectrum are as old as Cain and Abel and as new as Bill and Roger Clinton. OK, perhaps the latter isn’t such a great example. Billy and Whitey Bulger? Not so great, either, but you get the idea. And if not, you now have the opportunity to have the principle jack-hammered into your skull thanks to the star-studded “Brothers.”

Subtlety is definitely not its strong suit. Neither is originality in this virtual scene-for-scene remake of the 2004 Danish flick “Breodre,” which starred “Gladiator’s” Connie Nielsen as a woman torn between two brothers.

Yes, one was bad, and one was good. And, yes, I’m talking about the two movies, although the siblings in them are also diametrically opposed.

The good one – again I’m talking about the movies – is the one with the subtitles on the screen and the minimalist director behind it in Susanne Bier. This is a woman who clearly knows the meaning of nuance and the need to stress realism over histrionics.

Her counterpart on the Hollywood redo, Jim Sheridan, knows neither of these things. Perhaps that’s because three of the Irishman’s first four films – “My Left Foot,” “In the Name of the Father” and “The Boxer” – all starred Daniel Day-Lewis, an actor who’s never met scenery he didn’t wanna chew.

Of course, if you’re as exceptional as Daniel Day-Lewis, you can be forgiven for all the showboating. That, unfortunately, is not the case for Tobey Maguire and Natalie Portman, representing the weakest two-thirds of this overheated love triangle.

Not only are they horribly miscast, they’re borderline annoying in their portrayals of high school sweethearts (he was a football star; she was the head cheerleader, natch) who married, had two kids and got divided by the war in Afghanistan – not once, not twice, not thrice, but four times.

Early in this shrieking melodrama, we learn there will be no fifth tour for Maguire’s Sam Cahill because he has been reported killed in action. This despite the conspicuously ignored fact that his body was never found after his helicopter went down.

Yet, a funeral takes place, no doubt because it offers Portman’s Grace (yes, that’s really her name) the opportunity to look all sexy and vulnerable in the eyes of her ex-con brother-in-law, Tommy, who is fresh out of the joint and tempted to start playing house with the alleged widow.

He’s played splendidly by Jake “I can’t quit you” Gyllenhaal from behind a thick beard and sad, lost-little-boys eyes. His appearance says ex-con about as well as Perez Hilton says John Wayne, but unlike his two co-stars, he knows how to sell a character and give it depth.

Every time he’s onscreen it’s a reason to rejoice. He even manages to sell Tommy’s improbable transformation from irresponsible bank robber to responsible family man even though the movie never bothers to make us privy to what sparked it.

Like Maguire, he has zero chemistry with Portman, who struggles to register only slightly higher than the furniture. Of course, when Sam Shepard is screaming and getting his pathetic drunk on as the boys’ ex-Marine father, and Maguire is bashing up his newly remodeled kitchen with a club, there’s not much opportunity for a meek actress to make her presence known.

She should take a lesson from Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare, the little scene-stealers playing her precocious daughters. At least Portman isn’t laid to waste as egregiously as Mare Winningham as her mother-in-law, and Carey Mulligan (a shoo-in Oscar nominee for “An Education”) as another war widow.

No, make that the war widow – singular. In case you haven’t guessed, Sam really isn’t dead. He’s being held captive by the Taliban, who are slowly turning him into a caged animal capable of just about anything.

And that includes hammy acting once Sam is rescued and – surprise? – returns home to the family’s frozen Minnesota homestead, where he declares war on Tommy and just about everyone else daring to cross his path.

As was the case with “Breodre,” “Brothers” seeks to use its love triangle and other family melodramas to highlight the horrors of traumatic stress disorder, or in this case, dramatic stress disorder.

There’s never any doubt Sheridan’s intentions are honorable and heartfelt, but the confirmed peacenik is so emphatic about getting his points across that his film becomes overbearing in its sanctimony.

He and Benioff do, however, create a terrific moral quandary for Maguire’s character by putting him in a wartime situation no man should ever have to be put in. And for a while, Maguire does a nice job bringing the residual guilt home with Sam. But when he starts going excessively ballistic, it becomes more comical than sad.

Compare that with the guilt-ridden vet so marvelously fleshed out by Ben Foster in “The Messenger.” He’s an actor who is textbook on projecting simmering rage. He wins your empathy, too, unlike Maguire, who erupts with such an excessive degree of fury and belligerence all you can say is, “oh, brother.”

The Patriot Ledger