Good old-fashioned virtues of three-dimensional characters, fine dialogue, recognizable life situations and meat-and-potatoes content propel “The Brothers McMullen.” Straightforward and disarming in its utter disregard for trendiness and current fashion, this ultra-low-budgeter was acquired at Sundance for release by Fox’s new specialized Searchlight distribution arm, and some good marketing should be able to grab this audience-pleaser some good returns.
This stick-to-your-ribs Irish-American stew examines the very different approaches to life and love taken by three brothers temporarily living under the same roof on Long Island.
Writer/director/co-producer Edward Burns shot this handcrafted work on weekends over an eight-month period, using his family home as the main location. Shot on 16mm and now blown up to 35mm, pic lives and breathes with theauthentic emotions, hang-ups and attitudes that are its substance. Its strengths, then, lie not so much with matters of filmmaking craft as with its basic credibility and adherence to traditional dramatic values.
A brief cemetery-set prologue has Mrs. McMullen confiding to her son Barry (Burns) that, now that her husband is dead and buried, she will be returning at once to her native Ireland to join the man she’s actually loved all these
years. Don’t, she warns him, make the same mistake she did and become trapped in a loveless marriage.
Jump ahead five years and the three McMullen boys are at quite distinct stages of their lives. The eldest, Jack (Jack Mulcahy), a solid, good-looking jock who coaches the high school basketball team, toasts his lovely wife, Molly (Connie Britton), an English teacher, at a family gathering on her 30th birthday.
Writer Barry, the middle son, has just broken off a six-month relationship with Ann (Elizabeth P. McKay), a free-thinking woman who lives in Manhattan, while earnest young Patrick (Mike McGlone) is well along the road to marrying a Jewish girl even though he takes his Catholicism far more seriously than either of his brothers.
Suddenly without an apartment, Barry needs a place to stay and, shortly, so does Patrick after he refuses, on religious grounds, to move in with his fiancee , Susan (Shari Albert) before marriage. The only answer is to crash for a while at the family home Jack and Molly now inhabit, bringing the brothers back under the same roof for the first time in some years.
Despite his declarations of love for Molly, who is portrayed as a dream wife , Jack backs off when she pushes to have a child, and works out his fear and doubts through an illicit affair with Ann. Barry pursues Audry (Maxine Bahns), a striking young woman he meets in the Village, long enough to break down her rather formidable resistance, and shocks himself to find himself falling in love.
For his part, Patrick finds a soul mate down the street in former high school friend Leslie (Jennifer Jostyn) just as he endures the trauma of Susan’s unwanted pregnancy and intention to get an abortion, which sends the observant Catholic into paroxysms of distress.
Cognizant of what their siblings are up to, the brothers all contest the others’ treatment of women. The conversations among the three young men have the ring of experience and truth and are some of the film’s best sequences.
In dramatic terms, Burns’ script approaches its concerns directly and hits every subject squarely on the head. A couple of scenes, notably one in which Molly, on her 30th birthday, announces her desire to start having babies immediately, possess a baldly obligatory quality.
But the McMullens and their suburban working-class milieu do come alive onscreen, thanks to Burns’ generally solid writing, serviceable direction and his genuine feel for everything under discussion. Reminding at times of an Irish Richard Gere, Burns would also seem to have a future as an actor, as his good looks and quietly cocky attitude come off very well onscreen.
Performances by Mulcahy and McGlone as the other brothers have the earnest strength their characters call for. Among the women, Britton’s Molly is smart and sympathetic, Jostyn has an offbeat spunkiness as the former friend Patrick now sees in a new light, and Bahns, as Barry’s new g.f., is lovely and lively.
Technically, film is relatively rudimentary, but a bigger budget wouldn’t have brought much more to it.