Movie Review: Brothers
There’ve been a few times in my life when trailers have utterly deceived me. Not into thinking that a bad movie would be good, no, that would be too easy; I’m talking about leaving me befuddled as to even the most base parts of its premise. In 1996, for example, after watching an ad for the Mel Gibson movie Ransom, my understanding of the plot was that Gibson’s son had been kidnapped and the hook was that in return Gibson kidnaps the kidnapper’s son. Though I never got around to viewing Ransom, the Wikipedia summary indicates that such, sadly, wasn’t the case—but I’m still convinced that would make for an awesome movie.
Now we have Brothers, the trailer for which is even more confounding—from it, I surmised that the plot revolved around marine Toby Maguire getting kidnapped by terrorists and his brother Jake Gyllenhaal scurrying off to some terrorist-laden sector of the globe to rescue him. That was my first misconception. The second is that I thought it was actually about brothers.
But here’s what really happens:
The film opens with Marine Sam (Toby Macguire), all-American husband to high-school sweetheart Grace (Natalie Portman) and father of two surprisingly homely looking daughters (given their parentage), eagerly awaiting deployment for his fourth tour of duty in Afghanistan. His brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) has recently been released from prison. The three share a tense family dinner with the brothers’ parents the night before Sam’s shipped off. Soon after he arrives, Sam is taken prisoner and presumed dead. In the meantime, Tommy, despite no provocation, seeks to become a better person by valiantly getting drunk and passing out on Natalie Portman’s coach. Awaking the next morning with the kind of hangover you only see on TV (that is, mildly agitated by clanging noises but nevertheless coherent, balanced, and tolerant of children), he, with even less provocation, just up and decides to offer support to Natalie Portman and fill the role of father to her urchinous brood.
Naturally there’s more to this, but to offer further summary would be pointless. The movie hints at taking so many directions—the redemption of Tommy, a possible romance between Tommy and Grace, Sam escaping his captors and finding a way to get home, Sam struggling with PTSD, conflict between the brothers—but infuriatingly treats every sub-plot as a one-night stand. “I’ll call you,” the screenplay teases, and the audience is left waiting by the phone long after the standard three days. For example, early on the film makes an effort to show Sam and Tommy’s father Hank (Sam Shepard) as a heavy drinker. At Sam’s funeral, Tommy and an obviously intoxicated Hank get into an argument over who should drive, which leads to a larger argument in which Tommy attacks Hank’s parenting. Okay, I thought, so this is going to be a movie about two brothers coming to terms with their alcoholic father, but then Hank’s drinking is never referenced again, and the tension between he and Tommy spontaneously resolves itself later on in the film, like an afterthought. That sort of thing happens all the time in Brothers: It introduces a plotline then either dismisses it or half-heartedly follows it up.
That would be okay were there an overarching story to tie everything together. Even Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was just a series of vignettes, but you could excuse that because all the while he was just trying to get back his bike. Brothers, on the other hand, has no such bike (though to be fair, who could? That’s why Pee-wee went to such desperate lengths to retrieve it). You could say that the driving conflict is the tensions between the brothers, but they’re in only a handful of scenes together and only go head to head near the end. Even still, in that particular scene they’re not at odds with each other.
Maybe then it could be parallel struggles—Sam to get back home to his family and Tommy to put his life on track. That’s what the bulk of the movie focuses on, but it’s not really a struggle for either one. Tommy, as I said before, just decides to become a better person. There’s no inner demon he has to overcome, and even when he apologizes to the victim of his crime, we hear about it in flashback. Likewise Sam makes no effort to escape. The only action he takes during his incarceration has nothing to do with him getting home. I can respect Brothers for taking chances, but as soon as it’s raised the gauntlet, it backs down.
But enough about the “story,” what about the performances? It’s Oscar season, and there’s one scene in here that’s clearly intended to put Toby in the running for Best Actor. True, he nails it, and hopefully it’ll get him some more roles outside of his usual borderline autistic persona, but most of the time he’s just being a…well…borderline autistic. Gyllenhaal does a lot with not too much.
On the other hand Natalie Portman’s performance proves that she has neither been in love nor—and much more importantly—smoked a cigarette. However, I’m pretty sure, based on how she handles a drag, that one time, in college and under pressure from her friends—possibly to impress a boy she didn’t love—took a whiff of ganja. The guilt consumed her, and she thus became the mighty oak of a woman we know today—with a body as firm and a presence as stiff.
In the end, I was just bored. I get that the good brother becomes bad and the bad becomes good, but so what? The theme in itself does not make the movie, rather it’s the decisions each character makes. The problem with Brothers is that each of those character-defining decisions is either made for them or glossed over so the film can move on to the next. Most of the time I spent trying to figure out when it was going to start, and once I realized that it wasn’t, I couldn’t wait for it to end.
Rating 1.5 out of 5