Movie review: Brothers


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** out of *****

Movies with a message, from environmentally conscious documentaries to political thrillers, have dominated the Hollywood landscape recently, as moviegoers search for a little substance (outside of butter) to go with their popcorn.

Brothers is another film in this direction. It serves as little more than a public service/after-school special on soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The problem is, it’s not a very good one.

The story of Marine Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire), captured by militants in Afghanistan, is juxtaposed with that of his wife, Grace (Natalie Portman) and brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), who takes Grace and her daughters into his care while Sam is presumed dead. Grace and Tommy grow closer as he adopts the role of surrogate husband and father, until Sam is saved and returns to his family to find himself replaced and unable to adapt to civilian life.

Everything about Brothers is set up as a thriller. Sam holds a secret, as do Grace and Tommy, and worlds collide as Sam investigates whether his role in the bedroom has also been replaced. But the movie has no suspense whatsoever.

The film’s promotion, to say nothing of its title, leads one to believe that Brothers will be about tensions between, well, two brothers, but none are ever really played out.

The emotional and logical core of the movie appears to center on Grace and Tommy, but Sam’s plight in Afghanistan takes up around half of the first two acts. All of that work is done to set up one pivotal scene involving Sam and fellow Marine Joe Willis (Patrick Flueger). However, all the setup (for relatively little payoff) makes for boredom all around, because Grace and Tommy are far more interesting characters.

However, it is clear that the filmmakers intended the opposite. They tried to direct the emotional pull to Sam and the trauma he suffered in Afghanistan. Even as he cracks, the viewer is supposed to root for him. Sam’s story, and Brothers as a whole, ends up being nothing more than a scattered look at post-traumatic stress disorder that merely glances over the subject while doting on other issues.

The hokey ending contributes to this, and puts a nice NBC-esque “The More You Know” bow on the film.

This is perhaps because Gyllenhaal and Portman, at least in the case of this movie, are far superior actors compared with Tobey Maguire. With his scrawny frame and boyish face, Maguire looks more than capable of playing Spiderman, but he does not fit in the role of a tough, stern Marine (perhaps Gyllenhaal, who has played such a role well before, would have been more fitting). Even outside of looks, though, it is apparent that Maguire isn’t up to the task. He plays Sam too soft-spoken, even when he is trying to persuade Joe to not give up information to their captors.

Gyllenhaal and Portman are capable but don’t bring much substance to the table, either. And Sam and Grace’s two daughters are precocious to the point of cattiness and serve to do little more than add fake drama to a film already full of it.

Brothers fits well into the “movie with a message” dynamic but doesn’t have the focus (or the talent) necessary to make the moral stick. Instead, its scattered look at a ramshackle family is nothing more than a humdrum film that, even at only 110 minutes, seems all too long.

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