Brothers is a run-of-the-mill melodrama that plays (and looks) more like a TV-movie than a theatrical feature and for this reason the film fails to emotionally resonate with the audience. The movie is directed by Jim Sheridan, who made the recently reviewed The Field, In the Name of the Father, and In America, all of which are excellent and hard-hitting dramas. As you can see, Sheridan was working in quite familiar territory when he set out to direct Brothers. The film also boasts an accomplished cast with Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman, and Tobey Maguire. These actors have created impressive bodies of work in recent years and it seemed a no-brainer that grouping these actors into one film would guarantee success. Unfortunately, thats not what we get here and Brothers ends up being a missed opportunity for Sheridan to make a powerful drama that deals with the effects of the war at home.

The story, written by David Benioff (Wolverine, The Kite Runner, Troy, and 25th Hour), revolves around two brothers, one (Gyllenhaal) a fuck-up who recently gets let out of prison and the other (Maguire) a Marine with a wife (Portman) and 2 daughters. Maguire is deployed to Afghanistan only to be captured by the enemy when his helicopter goes down. Presumed dead, word is sent to his wife that he has been killed in action. The wife is consoled and taken care of by Gyllenhaal and the two develop a romantic relationship in which he basically becomes a part of the family until…Maguire is discovered to be alive and he returns with post-traumatic stress syndrome and pissed as all hell.

When I realized there was something wrong with the film, I initially thought it may be because of the performances. I thought there was something missing in how the actors were delivering their lines. However, this was not the real problem. The issue with the performances was Benioff’s script. Benioff is someone who, for reasons totally foreign to me, has turned into one of Hollywood’s most hottest screenwriters. However, if you look at his filmography, there isn’t much to impress. The story here feels stilted and cliched with very few moments of brilliance. As I said before, I felt like I was watching a TV-movie of the week. Some of the scenes are electrifying, but they mostly come at the very end, after sitting through a plodding, seemingly endless movie. Given the subject matter, the story is surprisingly lacks any emotion. Considering we’re watching a wife deal with the death of her husband and a soldier dealing with the horrors of war, the audience should be in for a pretty heart-wrenching experience. None of that occurs. Instead, the story felt sterile and emotionally detached from the characters’ experiences. Of course, the director can be faulted for this just as much if not more than the screenwriter.

As for the performances, I fault the direction the actors were given and the lines they were written more than what they deliver. Jake Gyllenhaal seemed to stand out the most in the film as the jailbird brother. He provides much needed comic relief and displays raw emotion, which I’ve never seen Gyllenhaal give in any of his previous films. He’s definitely improved as an actor and expanded his range over the years and he shows it in Brothers.

Natalie Portman also does well here as the wife, but I didn’t get the sense that she gave the character her all, especially in the scenes where she has to first deal with the loss of her husband. She absolutely loves her husband and her heart is torn by the fact that he is being deployed overseas. When she first learns that he’s been killed, I expected a hell of a lot more emotion out of her than what I saw. I wanted to see her go into hysterics. I began to think of the film, The Messengers (currently in theaters), and how much better and more realistic the film shows the spouses deal with the loss of their loved ones. In that movie, you are almost convinced you are watching real people dealing with a real loss. Here, I felt I was watching Natalie Portman playing a widow and pretending to deal with a loss.

This brings me to Tobey Maguire. I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Maguire over the years. He has made many good, even excellent, films over the years, but even in his good movies, he has not always given convincing performances. There is a hoky, “Gee, golly whiz!” aspect to his style of acting that I can’t get over and a perfect example of that is in his Spider-Man movies. You see a bit of that here. When Maguire goes ballistic later in the film, there are times of brilliance where he puts you on the edge of your seat. However, we don’t get enough of this and he seems to spend the majority of the film in a lame, almost retarded state-of-being.

Another big issue I had with Brothers was the choice to alternate between the home life of Portman/Gyllenhaal and Maguire’s ordeal in Afghanistan. This did not work….AT….ALL. One moment we see harrowing scenes of soldiers being tortured and in the next its back to Minnesota and comic relief and romance at the home front. This technique takes the audience on a roller coaster ride of emotion and not in a good way. Instead of allowing the audience to sink into the emotions of the scene, we are jarringly taken into a 180 spin to something completely different. Consequently, neither stories, neither the one in Afghanistan nor the one in Minnesota, work.

Brothers is a disappointing film and its made all the more disappointing for how badly it wastes its potential to be a modern-day version of The Deer Hunter. Compared to the recently seen The Messengers, this was a polished, stale, Hollywood version of the war at home. The Messenger felt genuine and you left the theater feeling like you just went through a wringer. Brothers, on the other hand, just leaves you empty and you quickly forget you even saw it 5 minutes after the film is done.