O Brothers, where art thou?
You’ll probably feel like you’ve seen this remake before, even if you haven’t
Wed, Dec 2, 2009 (5:20 p.m.)
Like so much Hollywood product these days, Brothers is a remake—in this case, of a Danish melodrama that was released in the U.S. back in the summer of 2005. Preparing for the new version, I decided to look up some reviews and ratings of the original, which I hadn’t seen, in order to get at least a general sense of how it had been received at the time. In the process, I discovered something entirely unexpected: I had in fact seen the original Brothers in 2005! That scared me a little, frankly. It’s only been four years, after all—am I experiencing early-onset Alzheimer’s? After seeing the remake, however, I immediately relaxed. In any language, this is a bland, forgettable scenario; ask me about Brothers 2009 four years from now and you’ll probably have to press this very review into my hands as proof that it passed before my eyes.
Both versions follow the same schematic trajectory. The brothers in question, Sam and Tommy Cahill, conform to the Lazy Screenwriter’s Rule of Fraternity, which states that if a family has only two siblings of a particular gender, those two individuals must be polar opposites in every conceivable respect. Ergo, Sam (Tobey Maguire) is a dedicated family man and a Marine about to kick off his fourth tour of duty in Afghanistan, while Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a no-account loser who’s just finished a three-year prison term for attempted robbery. When Sam is presumed dead following a helicopter crash, Tommy decides to man up and look after his brother’s stoic wife, Grace (Natalie Portman) and two daughters (Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare). But Sam in fact survived, and months of being tortured by the Taliban seems to have put him in a foul, not to say ugly, not to say almost volcanically jealous and suspicious mood.
As you can imagine, Brothers is basically an actors’ showcase, building inexorably to a climactic confrontation that allows the entire cast to yell their guts onto the kitchen floor. Like Elijah Wood, Tobey Maguire tends to be more interesting in roles that play against his baby-faced softness, and he does credible (if a bit overstated) work here as a Type A personality gone haywire. Gyllenhaal, however, has a tendency to disappear into a vaguely genial haze, and Brothers loses focus during the lengthy stretch in which scenes of Sam’s harrowing adventures in the Middle East are intercut with Tommy remodeling Grace’s kitchen and bonding with her over their shared love of U2—especially since she’s defined exclusively in relation to these two men, giving Portman precious little to do except look devastated, winsome or frightened.
One thing I now dimly recollect about the Danish version was that director Susanne Bier shot it Dogme-style, with a roving handheld camera and deliberately jumpy editing that served to slightly undermine the narrative’s more contrived aspects. Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father), a style-free classicist, is having none of that—his Brothers unfolds in stately repose, letting the actors do all the jumping and twitching. Unfortunately, that approach places extra emphasis on the script, which David Benioff (25th Hour) has failed to significantly improve in translation. The basic premise is just too hackneyed, I think; its characters fail to register as anything more than plot devices. Like any given episode of a soap opera, the result is never less than watchable. Memorable, however, is another matter.