You know what's special about having a brother? You can spend your whole childhood beating him up or tricking him into eating mud pies, but then when you grow up, you can still threaten him with embarrassing stories until he agrees to help you load your U-Haul.
It's what he gets, too, because of course that was him stealing your comics and, later, your wallet all through the early years. All part of the natural cycle of the mutual exploitation committee — or as we call it in English, the family.
I have, fortunately, never had any romantic rivalries with my brothers, possibly because one of them is like 80 and the other doesn't seem to share my interest in robots with wigs. His loss. Whatever, though, I imagine fighting with your brother over the same girl is even tougher than translating "I don't believe you're a natural blonde" into binary in a way that doesn't get you electrocuted. Good thing we've got movies such as Brothers to weird us out when real life can't.
Tobey Maguire, a member of the Marines, prepares to leave his family for another tour in Afghanistan just as his screwup brother Jake Gyllenhaal is getting home from a stint in prison. When Maguire's wife Natalie Portman hears Maguire's been killed in action, Gyllenhaal steps up to help her out with her home and her two daughters.
But Maguire isn't dead: he's been captured, tortured, brutalized and left traumatized by the experience. His return home won't be easy for anyone.
Brothers is a family drama, which means it's one of those movies where everyone stands around not looking at each other as they talk about anything but what's really on their minds. With all those feelings flying around like wads of overcooked, Ragu-drenched spaghetti, it's easy to walk out feeling messy and embarrassed.
Two chief weapons can be employed to stop stately drama from turning into screeching melodrama: steady direction and strong performances. And a sense of humor. OK, three chief weapons.
Director Jim Sheridan appears to belong to the understated school where you stand back and let the actors speak for themselves. It's a good strategy, because when you've got a whacked-out war hero and an ex-con, and they're also brothers, and Gyllenhaal may or may not be subtly trying to win Portman's eye, you don't exactly need to call more attention to the fact this is serious business. To make their emotions any bigger, Sheridan would practically have to wade out into the audience and slap us with gloves until we cry.
Not necessary with a cast like this. Maguire's performance in the third act is among the most uncomfortable and unsettling things I've seen since I asked my doctor about that growth. Sam Shepard's role as the brothers' hard-nosed and favorite-playing dad is hardly new, but he brings a humanity to it that makes it fresh.
Everyone contributes. It's powerful, it's moving, it's yadda yadda yadda. At the same time, it's got a sense of incompletion, both in its open-ended ending and the way certain conversations sizzle up to the boiling point and then...go nowhere.
There's realism in that — real-life conversations about these things are usually about as eloquent as a stroked-out Porky Pig — but it's frustrating, too, and sometimes a little artificial. There's a lot to like, it's just not quite as moving as it somehow ought to be.