Top-notch cast drives 'Brothers'

Posted: Thursday, December 10, 2009

It is generally a good idea to avoid melodramas. At work, they're uncomfortable whether you're directly involved or not. In relationships with the opposite sex (believe me, I could tell some stories), they're deal-breakers. Every so often, though, melodramas can make for some excellent entertainment. A good chunk of my motivation to feign illness in middle school was the thought of catching up on "All My Children" and "General Hospital"; stop laughing, I quit the daytime stories cold turkey years ago.

Melodramas can also work on the big screen. The key, I think, is to have a cast talented enough to be taken seriously and not stumble into moments of unintentional comedy. If "Brothers" starred Paul Walker, Hayden Christensen and Jessica Alba, for example, I guarantee it wouldn't work. Imagine Walker playing a captain in the army who gets captured in Afghanistan and is presumed dead; back home, his ex-con brother Christensen starts to take his place in his house with the sorrowful wife (Alba). Inevitably, with Walker gone, feelings develop between Christensen and Alba. Walker's children grow fond of Uncle Hayden. It's wrong and yet, somehow, right! Only, Walker's not dead. He's just being tortured for months as a prisoner of war.

When he comes home, essentially back from the dead, he's not right. Understandably so, but still, he's not right. And while he's thankful his brother was there for his family, he is convinced beyond doubt that his brother is sleeping with his wife. He is scary to his children and a big blowup is a foregone conclusion. That scenario wouldn't work with Walker, Christensen and Alba. The lines would seem cheesy, the tears fake, the drama too over the top and somewhere in there it would get unintentionally funny.

Substitute three of the best young actors on the planet, however, in Jake Gyllenhaal (seriously dude, legally change the spelling of your last name because that's just ridiculous), Tobey Maguire and Natalie Portman and you have yourself a winning melodramatic formula. Maguire plays the army captain, Sam. Gyllenhaal plays his ex-con, younger brother Tommy. Portman is Sam's adoring wife, Grace. All three are in top form from beginning to end, which means that yes, this melodrama works.

Perhaps one of the most interesting surprises for me was that Tommy and Grace do not sleep together. They do kiss, which the melodramatic out there might argue is just as bad or worse, but that's it. Even with Sam dead in their minds, they draw the line and respect it. Still, when Sam comes home, they can't help but project guilt in the awkward silences. Sam's reaction is somewhat reasonable in that regard, and when he tells Tommy that he looks good with Grace and Sam's kids, he's right!

I won't pretend to even begin to understand how difficult it must be for guys that come back, like Sam, to the normal world after spending months and months of a time doing who knows what in places like Afghanistan. For the purposes of a story like "Brothers," though, it certainly adds an unmistakable layer of tension. The demons Sam is dealing with are immense. Feeling betrayed by the two people he loves most when he defies odds and survives long enough to make it home... it takes him to the edge.

The tension in "Brothers" is constant, and unlike the kind in movies like "Meet the Parents," it is not good-natured and fun. It feels real more often than not.

Melodramas can work. They do work. As long as you cast Gyllenhaal, Maguire and Portman.

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