starring Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman, Mare Winningham
screenplay by David Benioff, based on the motion picture Brødre by Susanne Bier
directed by Jim Sheridan
starring Robert De Niro, Drew Barrymore, Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell
screenplay by Kirk Jones, based on an earlier screenplay by Massimo De Rita & Tonio Guerra & Giuseppe Tornatore
directed by Kirk Jones
by Ian Pugh If you're feeling charitable towards Susanne Bier's Brødre, you'll probably consider Jim Sheridan's Brothers an extraordinarily faithful remake--one that follows the original recipe so closely it could be considered a step-by-step recreation. But a quick survey of what screenwriter David Benioff excised and expanded reveals that he wasn't merely a glorified script doctor, having squeezed some real pathos from a tactless source. It's still the story of a loving father, Sam (Tobey Maguire), who is forced to perform unspeakable acts as a POW in Afghanistan. Because Sam's presumed dead, his ex-con brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal, finding the perfect balance between guilt and innocence) straightens out his life and grows ever closer to Sam's wife (Natalie Portman) and children. Sam's sudden reappearance in their lives is further complicated by the onset of the soldier's post-traumatic stress, but gone are the heavy-handed lines about the nature of good, evil, and death from Bier's film. In their place, moments of shaky acceptance as new members are integrated into a family--followed by stares of betrayal as loved ones become interlopers in their own home.
While Brothers is undoubtedly infected with a Hollywood slickness that distracts from the faux-Dogme realism of its predecessor (with her self-conscious movie-star presence, Portman seems particularly out of place), that assembly-line ethic also manages to give the story a greater sense of structure. From a strictly narrative standpoint, the script may feel calculated to hit familiar notes at familiar junctures, but it works; the American redux is a convincing argument that Brødre's problems were purely formal in nature. A better understanding or more willing embrace of three-act structure enables the filmmakers to poetically shuffle the chronology of the story, in turn allowing them to indulge in the precious time required to mull over the characters' feelings. Brothers is seven minutes shorter than Brødre, yet it plays like a more complete, less rushed version of the story. That narrative cohesion comes at a price, alas: the film's most obvious problem is that it still swings and misses when the time comes to make a grand statement. In other words, what you see is what you get, but aren't the shades of grey here ambiguous enough without the need for hefty subtext? Maguire's occasionally bizarre facial expressions, meanwhile, do nothing to sabotage a penetrating glare that evokes the paranoia and outright danger of Deathdream's bug-eyed zombie-vet. The Maguire of Brothers stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the Nicolas Cage of The Bad Lieutenant and the Seth Rogen of Observe and Report as another one of 2009's best performances. It's a perfect representation of a man who's damaged in a way the rest of us cannot possibly know, defined by how little we understand the experiences that brought him to this point. The picture, accordingly, is not a character study--it's the dissection of a meltdown: the question is not when he will erupt, but whether or not he has already erupted.
Kirk Jones likewise looks to mainland Europe seeking a tale of family divided with some depth--specifically, to an out-of-print Mastroianni vehicle about a widower aching to reconnect with his children. It's supposed to invoke the same sense of uneasy togetherness as Brothers, but this version of Everybody's Fine is so maudlin it may as well have been painted on velvet. After his kids cancel a weekend get-together, Frank (Robert De Niro) embarks on an impromptu trip across the country to visit each of them individually: Amy (Kate Beckinsale) in Chicago, Robert (Sam Rockwell) in Denver, Rosie (Drew Barrymore) in Vegas, and David (Austin Lysy) in New York. The rest of Everybody's Fine revolves around the varying degrees of regret Frank's offspring have for failing to live up to Dad's expectations. Jones unfortunately never sees these people as anything other than objects of pity, clucking his tongue with an outsider's detachment, eternally two steps away from throwing "Cat's in the Cradle" on the soundtrack. No one is more objectified than De Niro himself: although ten years of self-deprecating garbage have robbed him of impact (his halting sobs were once a surefire way to steal our sympathy; now they elicit a roll of the eyes), he doesn't deserve to be treated like a prop--not by Jones and his overlit sitcom landscape and not by the supporting cast, whose uniformly mechanical performances let us know they think they're better than the material. It all just feels like a cheap opportunity to stand alongside an acting legend; thing is, these days, I'm not entirely sure De Niro knows that he's above this. Originally published: December 9, 2009.