Tobey Maguire as Capt. Sam Cahill
Jake Gyllenhaal as Tommy Cahill
Natalie Portman as Grace Cahill
Bailee Madison as Isabelle Cahill
Sam Shepard as Hank Cahill
Mare Winningham as Elsie Cahill
Taylor Geare as Maggie Cahill
Patrick Flueger as Private Joe Willis
Clifton Collins Jr. as Major Cavazos
Carey Mulligan as Cassie Willis
Omid Abtahi as Yusuf
Navid Negahban as Murad
Ethan Suplee as Sweeney
Arron Shiver as A.J.
Ray Prewitt as Owen
Directed by Jim Sheridan
“Everybody’s Fine” Cast
Robert De Niro as Frank Goode
Drew Barrymore as Rosie
Kate Beckinsale as Amy
Sam Rockwell as Robert
Lucian Maisel as Jack
Damian Young as Jeff
James Frain as Tom
Melissa Leo as Colleen
Katherine Moennig as Jilly
Brendan Sexton III as Mugger
James Murtaugh as Dr. Ed
Austin Lysy as David
Chandler Frantz as Young David
Lily Mo Sheen as Young Amy (as Lily Sheen)
Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick as Young Robert
Directed by Kirk Jones
The fact that two very different movies about family are opening this weekend, both adapted from European films transplanted into the United States, makes for ideal conditions to analyze them as a pair. “Brothers” is an adaptation of Susanne Bier’s Danish film of the same name by Irish filmmaker Jim Sheridan working with solid dream cast of Hollywood A-listers. Not to say that Kirk Jones’ cast for his remake of Guiseppe Tomatore’s “Stanoo tutti bene” is one to sneeze at, because he has wrangled Robert De Niro to play a very different role from the norm. Having not seen either of the original movies, and bearing in mind that most people won’t have either, we’ll be looking at both movies as their own entities rather than as remakes, and their similar themes about the breakdown of family ties either through the effects of distance and time or from the psychological ravages of war.
The majority of Jones’ film follows De Niro’s Frank Goode as he travels around the country visiting his grown-up kids after a planned family gathering falls apart. While the time spent on the train meeting new people is tiring, each one of the kids he visits–Sam Rockwell, Kate Beckinsale and Drew Barrymore in chronological order–offers another piece of the puzzle to what happened with Frank’s youngest son David, who has gotten into some trouble while in Mexico. Frank also has medical problems that should prevent him from making such a rigorous road trip, but he’s far too determined to listen to his doctor’s advice.
Sheridan’s film focuses on brothers Sam and Tommy Cahill (Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal), their relationship with each other and their parents, and how things change when Sam, a Marine officer, disappears in Afghanistan and is presumed dead. Having constantly been in trouble with the law, his younger brother Tommy takes responsibility by trying to fill the void left by his presumably dead brother, getting closer with Sam’s wife Grace (Natalie Portman) and his two daughters.
Because Jones has mainly cut his teeth directing light British comedies like “Waking Ned Devine,” this certainly seems like new ground, going for a tone closer to that of “The Visitor” or Alexander Payne’s “About Schmidt,” though comparatively drier than both. Sheridan dealt with dysfunctional family dynamics in his most personal film, “In America, and it’s clear that he’s the far more experienced filmmaker, really challenging his actors and pushing them as far as they’ll go, while pulling together the film’s divergent elements in a way that flows quite effortlessly. Some of the more intense dramatic fireworks in Sheridan’s film may even remind some of Susanne Bier’s American debut “Things We Lost in the Fire.” Jones has a strong enough story and cast but his direction isn’t nearly as impressive.
Instead, “Everybody’s Fine” is clearly Robert De Niro’s show, and he delivers a surprisingly warm and poignant performance as the lonely widower trying to reconnect to his kids. It’s a fairly subdued role that plays up to what De Niro does best, which is to not say an awful lot but keep you interested with his actions, even if they play the “old man doesn’t understand technology” card a few too many times for laughs. His three co-stars aren’t bad in their interactions with him, but none of their performances that are particularly outstanding or memorable either.
More than just a family drama, “Brothers” spends a good portion of its time watching Sam’s harrowing torture after being captured in Afghanistan, which is sometimes tough to watch, but it’s also important in establishing his mindset for when he inevitably returns home and suspects his wife of having an affair with his brother. Once the brothers are reunited, the movie doesn’t just become another wartime love triangle, instead showing the effects of war on the ability for a soldier to relate to his family once reunited. The relevance of “Brothers” hitting theaters just two days after Obama’s announcement of sending more troops to Afghanistan is completely coincidental, but the film does make a fine bookend to Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker.”
It might take some time to accept Maguire and Portman as the parents of two young girls, or Maguire as a Marine captain for that matter, since their youthful looks and the fact we’ve watched them in movies since they were both young. By the end, Maguire is able to overcome this stigma by delivering a dynamic performance that’s unlike anything else we’ve seen from him, showing what he can do when he cuts loose. Portman delivers a suitably strong dramatic performance as always, while Gyllenhaal brings a much needed air of humor to scenes that might have been extremely tough otherwise, and in fact, the entire movie might have been overwrought with grief in the hands of another director. Sheridan also follows the theme of sibling rivalry through to Sam’s two daughters, played by Taylor Geare and Bailee Madison, the older one dealing with jealousy over the attention heaped on her younger sister. Playing up to another of Sheridan’s strengths, he has found two loveable young actresses who can handle the more dramatic scenes but also help lighten the tone when the family is trying to recover from grief. Sheridan also cast the inimitable Sam Shepard as the boys’ father, a retired Marine officer who clearly favors his military son to the troubled Tommy, and any doubt of Carey Mulligan’s talents after “An Education” is nailed in with a brief scene as another military widow.
Neither movie is nearly as heavy as one might suspect from the subject matter being explored. Even Sheridan softens up the more intense moments with lighter, more playful moments, even if they won’t leave quite the same impression as the more dramatic scenes. The abrupt change in tone creates a strange mélange of emotions that works better than one might expect. “Everybody’s Fine” has many sweet moments, but it does tend to veer into territory that’s overly sentimental and saccharine and hitting the audience in the head with the title by ending with Frank saying the actual line “everybody’s fine” might annoy the more cynical moviegoer.
Up until that unfortunate moment, it’s easy enough to relate to how hard it must be for older parents to accept their grown-up kids as adults living away from home. In Frank’s case, his late wife knew everything that was going on, but she kept that information from him, leading to a dream sequence in which Frank confronts his children about the secrets they’ve been keeping from him during his visits. Sheridan has a far more subtle way of building tension towards the inevitable emotional drama, then doesn’t let the audience off easy once things explode.
The Bottom Line:
Ultimately, both movies are quite good, definitely watchable and worth one’s time, although making the choice between them will depend whether you want something that takes place very much in the real world like “Brothers” does, or something that’s just as honest in dealing with family relationships, albeit in a far more sanguine and safer way i.e. in a far less politically-charged environment.
Brothers: 8 out of 10
Everybody’s Fine: 7.5 out of 10