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Workmanlike and inoffensive, Brothers will neither devastate nor severely disappoint.


Directed by Jim Sheridan

The latest in a long line of Sheridan dramas oriented around family units,  Brothers, adapted from the 2004 Danish feature of the same name, is competently constructed and generally well-performed, but hovers just above mediocrity throughout the proceedings. Perhaps in the post-Rachel Getting Married / A Christmas Tale landscape, we’ve come to expect more from our indie family dramas.

Brothers pivots around the relationship between male siblings on opposite ends of the Patriarchal Approval totem pole. A rake-thin, increasingly bug-eyed Tobey Maguire plays Sam, the prodigal son – the decorated military man with a family of his own (including perpetually teary wife Natalie Portman), while a mostly unburdened Jake Gyllenhaal comes across as being a little too calm and collected to believably be the clan’s black sheep, seen at the start of the film exiting prison after a stint for robbery. Sam is heading for a second tour of duty in Afghanistan, much to his two young daughters’ dismay and his hawkish ex-military father’s beaming pride. It’s not long before Portman is informed that Sam has perished in a chopper crash, and Gyllenhaal’s Tommy finds himself as the family’s increasingly crucial support beam. Meanwhile, the actually-alive Sam is captured by extremists (along with a jittery Private) and put through a psychological wringer.

Sheridan seems more at ease with the domestic half of Brothers’ middle section, in which Gyllenhaal and Portman form a tentative-then-intimate bond while Maguire deteriorates in the desert half a world away. He doesn’t seem to have the stomach to make the Afghanistan portion as traumatic as it should be, with even a pivotal act of brutality coming across a little muted. It’s telling that far more tension is generated during the film’s standout scene, a nerve-wracking dinner confrontation involving a balloon, a chatty houseguest (who’s also easily the movie’s most sensible character), a wide-eyed Maguire and some very meddlesome children. Alas, that winds up not being the blueprint for the film’s actual climax, which centers on a gun-toting Maguire chewing scenery left and right to roughly no one’s surprise. His character winds up as a slightly cartoonish grab bag of exaggerated PTSD symptoms instead of a natural extension of the character we barely got to know in the film’s opening reels – though his addiction to combat dovetails nicely with another war-themed film from this year. Workmanlike and inoffensive, Brothers will neither devastate nor severely disappoint. Welcome to Oscar season.

– Simon Howell