A road movie/love story/let’s-put-a-band-together comedy that risks tripping over its own charming eccentricity, “The Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best” is a low-budget, character-driven pic that thrives best when those characters — a depressive singer-songwriter and a slightly unhinged lunatic playing instruments from Toys “R” Us — are being musical. Debut feature by helmer Ryan O’Nan echoes the authenticity of several other pop romances (“Once,” for instance, or “The Commitments”) while carving out its own lyrical niche. Proper handling could put theatrical exposure in the mix, along with plenty of music downloads.
Tyro writer-director O’Nan, an established actor (“The Dry Land,” “Eat Pray Love”), has a bit of a problem finding a rhythm, at least at the outset: Alex (O’Nan) has suffered a devastating breakup with his girlfriend, which has done nothing to brighten his already maudlin personality. A performer and tunesmith who writes about love and loss in an alt-rock kinda way, he’s formed an act with another guitarist who sings songs about werewolves. Naturally, they don’t mesh onstage, and what’s happening onscreen — including a prolonged scene in which Alex loses his day job in real estate, while clashing with his obnoxious co-workers (Christopher McDonald, Wilmer Valderrama) — feels more than a little forced.
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So does Alex’s gig playing for mentally challenged children while wearing a pink rabbit suit. When one of the kids attacks him with a toy knife, he reflexively punches the tyke in the face.
His non-career on the skids, Alex is overwrought, and it doesn’t bode well when Jim (Michael Weston), a self-proclaimed “musical revolutionary,” decides he and Alex are meant to form a band together. The persistent Jim has just been kicked out of group that an itinerary in place – a series of gigs stretching across the country, culminating in a West Coast “battle of the bands.” Jim somehow convinces the reluctant Alex to get in the car with him, and drive — and the movie finds its traction.
Alex starts playing his guitar and singing his songs in the car while Jim — still driving — accompanies him on a Playskool xylophone, a melodica, various plastic instruments. The results are enchantingly naive and musically sound.
With Jim dubbing the new group the Brooklyn Brothers (“Doesn’t that sound like a black ’70s soul band?” Alex asks), they make their way to a rural Pennsylvania club booked by not-so-tough girl Cassidy (Arielle Kebel), who decides they need her as a manager. Alex declines the offer. But he couldn’t dissuade Jim, either.
That love will loom between Alex and Cassidy is a given, as are the usual road-movie tropes — friction within the group, various mishaps along the road, a moral crisis and resolution — which takes place when Alex visits his fundamentalist Christian brother (Andrew McCarthy) and his uptight friends (who include Melissa Leo).
Each gig presents its own set of problems: At one, pathological liar Jim has promised the promoter that Scott Weiland of the Stone Temple Pilots would be playing with them. Still, as portrayed by Weston, Jim is a charmer; Alex is a front man in need of medication; Cassidy is a cutie with more attitude than integrity. And together, they make each other — and the film — better.
Production values are fine, notably the sound, by Corey Mellious.