Thursday, December 3, 2009

'Brothers,' a second-hand drama?

Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal deal with brotherly issues.

Adapting foreign material for American audiences is a bit like trying to run a race with your legs shackled. Adjusting stories that found their truest expression in another culture and language often seems to sap material of something vital, rendering it a trifle drab. In the case of American attempts at cross-cultural appropriation, traces of sentimentality often creep into the mix.

Many of those liabilities are on display in Everybody's Fine, an adaptation of Giuseppe Tornatore's Stanno tutti bene (reviewed this week) and also in Brothers, an Americanized version of Danish director Susanne Bier's movie of the same name.

If you've seen either of the originals, the Americanized versions -- though notably earnest -- may strike you as the equivalent of looking at something painted by the numbers as opposed to encountering something strikingly new.

It's a matter of coincidence that neither Everybody's Fine nor Brothers was directed by an American. Kirk Jones, the Brit best known for Waking Ned Devine, brought Everybody's Fine to the screen; Jim Sheridan, the Irish director of Brothers, is best known for movies such as My Left Foot, The Boxer and In America.

The more socially relevant and better of the two movies, Brothers centers on Tommy and Sam Cahill, played respectively by Jake Gyllenhaal and Tobey Maguire). Tommy, an ex convict, is the family disgrace. Sam, a captain in the Marine Corps, upholds the family tradition of honor and service. The brothers' tough-minded, hard-drinking father (Sam Shepard) served as a Marine in Vietnam.

The drama begins with Tommy being released from prison. Sam, on the other hand, is about to be deployed to Afghanistan. From the start, Sheridan makes it clear that Sam and his wife Grace (Natalie Portman) have a happy and healthy marriage. They also have two cute daughters, played with engaging naturalism by Ballie Madison and Taylor Geare.

Shortly after arriving in Afghanistan, Sam is killed in a helicopter crash -- or at least that's what his family is told. It's not giving away anything to reveal that Sam survives and is taken prisoner, a startling bit of information that the movie discloses quickly.

Back at home, Tommy begins to develop a relationship with Natalie and her children, becoming a kind of surrogate father and humanizing himself in the bargain. To its credit, the movie deals delicately with any potential romance between Tommy and Grace, both of whom believe that Sam is dead. The movie also shows us the life-changing horror Sam confronts in Afghanistan.

I don't remember feeling as if Bier was dotting every "i" and crossing every "t" in her version of Brothers. I did get that impression with Sheridan's movie, which derives from a script by David Benioff, who also adapted The Kite Runner for the screen.

Still, you almost can feel the actors trying to rise to the occasion. Gyllenhaal captures Tommy's rueful cynicism, alienation and confusion. Portman is equally good -- maybe better -- as a loyal wife who somehow senses that her husband's still alive. And Maguire makes the unsettling transition from loving father and husband to post-traumatic creep show.

Gaunt and sporting a military haircut, Maguire becomes a looming menace once Sam returns home. He makes those around him (and us) increasingly uncomfortable.

Look, Brothers represents an honorable effort by Sheridan, and it certainly can't be called a failure, but it demonstrates the drawbacks of not starting from scratch, of asking actors to pump first-hand immediacy to material that, by its vary nature, qualifies as second-hand goods.

After president President Obama's speech, a movie about Afghanistan should feel more timely than ever, but Brothers is haunted by shadows of yesterday. It is, finally, a remake.

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