Friday, December 04, 2009

Brothers: There Is No Coming Home

A man goes to war, his wife is told he died, the man's brother swoops into to comfort the widow, and then the man who was thought to be dead comes home. A simple premise rife with complex emotional and dramatic possibilities. Susanne Bier must have thought so, because in 2004 she made a film about just that. Unfortunately, Jim Sheridan did too, and did so in a rather overwrought and boring film. In his cast are Tobey Maguire, Natalie Portman and Jake Gyllenhaal, as the man, the wife and the brother, respectively. An energetic, frequently solid set of performers, but with an underwritten yet overwrought screenplay by David Benioff, and poor direction from Sheridan, they come up short trying to communicate the complexities of the story. And then there's poor Sam Shepard. Saddled with playing a cliche: the hard-drinking pa who's loves the one good son and hates the other for being a fuck up. He's cold, he's distant and when he learns of Maguire's death you almost expect him to say "the wrong kid died!" Calling the characters in the film as one dimensional as carboard cut-outs is an insult to cardboard cut-outs.

There's also an element in the scenes between the three main cast members of children playing house. Natalie Portman, a fine actor when directed properly, doesn't have either the age or the look of a mother of two. It's no wonder she often plays childish or impish young women. Portman's strength seems to lay in her betrayal of her short stature in either political awareness, as in Amos Gitai's Free Zone, where she plays a would-be terrorist, or in sexual control, as in Mike Nichols' Closer. Here, Portman is supposed to be a cookie cutter cheerleader wife who's married her highschool sweetheart. It's poor casting, and it extends to unprepared Tobey Maguire in full on Robert DeNiro method mode, shouting "you fuck my wife?!" with unrestrained vocal gusto, but, most embarrasingly, a very restrained physical performance. In one of his freak out scenes, Maguire shouts "You know what I did with these hands?!" staring at them for a moment before softly slapping himself in the face and very feebly throwing everything off of a kitchen counter. It's amature and it's funny when it should be frightening. Gyllenhaal is charming and tries his hardest to show the pain and regret of choices in life, but beyond slapping on a neck tattoo, you never get the impression this is a guy who was just released from prison and has no future planned for himself.

Beyond the failure of the actors, the film loses any strain of credibility when it moves to Afghanistan. Through the middle of the film, we cut back and forth between scenes in the U.S. showing Gyllenhaal and Portman growing close and greiving, and scenes of Maguire and another solider being held capture. At one point Maguire flips out a camera phone to take some video of children by the side of the road. The footage on screen is shaky, zoom heavy 35mm footage tinted blue, supposedly representing what the camera phone is catching. Beyond the fact that camera phones only include digital zooms, jumping into a cropped version of whatever image the camera is pointed at, they're also incredibly low resolution. Fine, a technical error made for picture clarity, in a better film we'd forgive that. But just moments later, after their capture, an Afghan is video taping Maguire and the other soldier on a handicam, spinning around them in and lining their faces up in classic compositions. In this instance the footage is thankfully actually from the camera it purports to be. As for the compositions, fine, maybe the young terrorist is a film buff, but would any terrorist worth his salt shoot video showing the mountains and the plains around them when they intended to send the footage to media outlets and the Army? Would they really give their enemies their exact location on video? Didn't someone in the production stop them and question the authenticity of the scene?
There is an odd element to the film that is appealing though. Occasionally scenes will extend past their seemingly natural end point, allowing for what seems like spontaneous improvisation to finish them. These are more appealing and natural than anything else in the film, so too is the scene with a horribly underused Carrey Mulligan, which was reportedly entirely improvised. Perhaps it's in these scenes that the film more fully mirrors the original Danish film, if not in content then in tone.

Sheridan's one saving grace seems to be his ability to cull realistic performances from children. In this film, as in his film In America, they're from two little girls who are far more interesting and multifaceted than their parental counterparts. I think there's material for a good film here (I haven't seen the original Danish film this is a remake of, but perhaps it plays better in that), but it's all handled rather clumsily and is completely uninvolving. Coming Home, the film this most resembles, it is not. It's a shame, with an energetic young cast, the writer of the one best films of the decade, a brilliant cinematographer in Frederick Elmes, the usually reliable Thomas Newman providing the score and an acclaimed Danish film to work from, you'd think the results wouldn't be so flaccid and uninteresting.

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