Thou shalt not covet thy brother’s wife, but sometimes thou just can’t help tongue-wrestling after some really excellent pot. Brothers has painful things on the brain, but it’s the intimate moments that hit deepest in a story that shifts between the war in Afghanistan and pent-up family angst back in the good old U.S. of A.
Director Jim Sheridan (In the Name of the Father), has cast his Irish eyes (with X-Men Origins: Wolverine writer David Benioff) on Susanne Bier’s 2004 same-named Danish film for a moving, if less gripping, remake. In the Irish-American Cahill clan, Capt. Sam (Tobey Maguire) is a good Marine following in the bootprints of his hard-ass Vietnam-vet father, Hank (Sam Shepard), while Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the younger, ex-con bad brother. Uh-huh, bad brothers always have more fun.
When Sam is presumed dead in Afghanistan, ne’er-do-well Tommy starts hanging at his bro’s house, rebuilding the kitchen, cavorting with his nieces (Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare), and getting an itch to cavort with Sam’s grief-stricken wife, Grace (Natalie Portman), too. In fact, Sam is a prisoner of Taliban fighters who force him to commit an act so monstrous he returns home with serious psychological baggage.
Sheridan has always had a knack for snagging naturalistic performances, and the grief that plays across Portman’s face after the news of Sam’s disappearance is raw and palpable. The makeshift-family scenes between her, Gyllenhaal (in a subtle, appealing performance), and the two wonderful child actors have a touching charm. When Sam (played eerily robotically by Maguire), finally pops his cork, the pain doesn’t register quite genuinely, but a birthday-party scene powerfully evokes the wounds of generations of messed-up families.