' ' Cinema Romantico: Brothers

Thursday, December 10, 2009


When you watch a movie you hope to become invested in the characters on the screen, so invested that it starts to feel as if real lives are being lived out right there in front of you and that those people up on the screen are making the decisions that send their lives into whatever direction it is they go. You do not hope, when watching a movie, to sense the presence of the screenwriter, to feel as if he or she is hiding just out of sight behind the curtains on either side of the movie screen while manipulating the characters.

The primary problem with "Brothers" is that screenwriter David Benioff's presence looms over everything. Who are these people? I know that Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) is married to Grace (Natalie Portman) and has two amiable young daughters. I know Sam's brother is Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), just out of prison, for attempted robbery it seems, and that their father (Sam Shepard) refrains from hiding affection for Sam and contempt for Tommy.

I know that Sam, a Captain in the marines, is deployed to Afghanistan, his helicopter is shot down, and he is reported dead. Except, of course, he is not dead (the movie never attempts to hide this fact from the audience). He is captured, made a prisoner along with a fellow private, they are tortured in ways you might rather not imagine. I know that back home Tommy turns up to help Grace and the kids and that Grace, always cold to Sam's brother, warms to him. Perhaps a bit too much? I know that Sam returns from Afghanistan eventually, a changed man, possibly not in a good way, and things spiral downward. I know all of that but, really, who are these people?

The movie never says. It is far too busy having plot happen to them to give us a real sense of how that plot is affecting them. I'm fairly sure if we checked Grace's social security card we'd see her middle name is Steadfast. Director Jim Sheridan sure can frame and light a shot well and all he has poor Portman do is stand around like a figurine on a chessboard waiting to be moved.

I'm certain Benioff didn't mean it this way - and it must be noted this film is based on a Danish film I have not seen - but the most crucial subplot of the whole movie involves Grace's kitchen. Seriously. After it seems Sam has perished Tommy turns up to renovate the kitchen. So here we have a female whose characteristics are nothing beyond being a mom and having a kitchen. Ouch.

Maguire and Gyllenhaal, luckily, look like brothers and possess realistic sibling rhythms. Maguire in particular makes his transformation from consummate family man to Jack Nicholson in "The Shining" convincing - you believe he is one and then the other - but the screenplay is rather jarring in bringing about this transformation. This guy. Now this guy. Problematic, too, is the supposed chemistry between Tommy and Grace. Sam thinks these two are having an affair? Is he sure? We're a long way from Sgt. Warden and Karen Holmes in "From Here To Eternity". It's the catalyst to make Sam angry simply because Sam has to be angry or otherwise how is the movie going to see through its third act?

It's like Benioff drew up a killer outline, typed up a serviceable first draft but chose against the all important rewrites.

I think "Brothers" has good intentions and it certainly is timely when considering the recent troop surge into the very area where portions of this film are set. The events of the film are difficult and complex. I wish I would have better known these people to whom the events were happening.

1 comment:

Rory Larry said...

this is another example of Hollywood being out of ideas, here is an opinion on the original foreign film if you are interested