The main accomplishment of “My Brother’s Keeper” is that it comes off as a poignant examination of two individuals rather than as an uplifting take on a cause. John Lithgow’s superlative performance as twin brothers Tom and Bob Bradley — both devoted elementary school teachers, one of whom is stricken with the HIV virus — is essential to the pic’s success.
But producer-director Glenn Jordan and writer Gregory Goodell have done their share: The true story is rendered with discipline and constraint. Structure and execution are as punctilious as ailing brother Tom’s personality.
The resonant script offers a story that is part medical drama, part courtroom drama, part revelatory tragedy. It’s wrenching, but without bathos. As Tom himself realizes, it’s not a profile in courage, but a story about fear — of dying, of prejudice, of family. Lithgow creates two distinct characters, and both grow immeasurably in the course of the story. The brothers are onscreen together much of the time; this is handled well from a technical point of view, but it’s the acting that convinces.
As the virus progresses, a bone marrow transplant using Bob’s genetically identical marrow is explored. The procedure, to be undertaken at Johns Hopkins, may save Tom’s life, but the insurance company won’t cover it.
With no other recourse, the brothers go public with their
plight, and their conservative Long Island community rallies round to an extraordinary (and, due to its swiftness, somewhat unrealistic) degree.
Real conflict turns out to be within the family and between the brothers. As former seminarians, they are deeply religious and have had trouble reconciling their homosexuality with their Catholicism. Their mother (Ellen Burstyn) is in deep denial. The tastefulness with which the telepic deals with sensitive issues like religion, homosexuality and AIDS is remarkable — to the degree that some may find it wan.
Tech work and supporting actors never detract from the central story. As a sister, Annette O’Toole deserves special mention.