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‘Half Brothers’ Review: A Labored Bilingual Buddy Comedy

Mismatched Mexican and Yankee siblings clash in this contrived, sometimes maudlin road-trip comedy.

Half Brothers
Courtesy of Focus Features

So many movies intended for the big screen are having to forgo it these days, it seems odd when something as apt for home viewing as “Half Brothers” makes the COVID-defying move of opening on 1,200-plus American screens. Those looking for undemanding entertainment may give it a passing grade, but this formulaic, sometimes maudlin buddy comedy about reunited Mexican and Yankee half-siblings is not the sort of thing that cries for a public auditorium’s bigger scale or the collective viewing experience. Nor does writer-producer Eduardo Cisernos’ concept (its story co-credited to Ali LeRoy, the screenplay to Jason Shuman) add much to culture-clash politics beyond contrivance and reinforced stereotypes. It’s a slick film that’s forgettable at best, annoyingly broad and unfunny at worst.

A 1994 prologue has engineer Flavio (Juan Pablo Espinosa) enjoying a close, playful relationship with only child Renato (Ian Inigo) in their native San Miguel de Allende. But a steep economic downturn forces dad to leave his wife (Bianca Marroquin) and son behind in order to seek work up north, along with many others. While he promises he’ll soon return, that promise is broken.

As a present-day adult, Renato (Luis Gerardo Mendez) is the founder of his own successful aviation company, engaged to doting Pamela (Pia Watson). Yet he has trouble relating to her admittedly weird kid (Mike Salazar) by a prior relationship, and has no real friends due to his general unbending humorlessness. When a call comes informing that his long-estranged father is dying in Chicago, the fiancée insists he travel there, as Flavio is “the source of all your issues.”

In contrast to Renato’s stiff formality and expensive sartorial style, the Ugly Americanisms begin piling up as soon as he lands, compounded by a chance encounter with an obnoxious idiot in a coffee shop. Unfortunately, that idiot turns out to be his own hitherto-unknown half brother Asher (Connor Del Rio), to whom he’s formally introduced over dad’s deathbed. Before expiring, Flavio tasks the two siblings with what Renato not-inaccurately terms a “scavenger hunt,” a cross-country journey that will reveal why their father left one family for another. We have already sussed that we are now tasked with watching a road-trip buddy comedy of the familiar “killjoy vs. wacky free spirit” type, one in which the clownier half of the equation is primarily going to be very, very annoying.

Director Luke Greenfield’s first feature nearly two decades ago was “The Animal” with Rob Schneider. Del Rio here fits into a mold familiar not just from that comedian, but Pauly Shore, John Leguizamo in “The Pest,” Chris Kattan in “Corky Romano,” and so forth: the strenuously antic child-man whose bag of tricks may delight actual children, but is likely to leave most grownups frantically reaching for the remote. (Another reason “Half Brothers” would play better at home.)

The problem isn’t that Renato needs to loosen up. Asher would exasperate anyone. He quickly burdens them with a stolen baby goat (don’t ask why), then frequently gets them both into other forms of hot water. Meanwhile, the duo traipse from St. Louis to Oklahoma City to El Paso, at each stop getting new intel from a stranger (Jose Zuniga, Vincent Spano, Alma Sisneros) that further illuminates why Flavio did what he did.

In truth, however, the script does not cough up very good excuses for dad abandoning his first family — despite all travails he suffered, he still could (and should) have repaired that bridge long ago. Nor does Asher become any less of an irritant, notwithstanding the vague attempt to cast him as possibly birth-defected, or something else that might sympathetically explain his being “different.” So the paternal and brotherly love meant to suffuse this knockabout tale with warmth feels phony even by stock buddy-comedy standards.

As for the comedic elements themselves, well, ”Half Brothers” can’t even get much mileage out of a gratuitous baby goat’s cuteness. Selling Del Rio as our passport to hilarity is definitely beyond its ability, though admittedly the material does him no favors. Mexican star Mendez (“The Noble Family,” “Cantinflas”) maintains his dignity, and might well one day cross over to significant English-language success. But this vehicle (following a bit in last year’s dud “Charlie’s Angels” reboot) doesn’t exactly give him a head start.

Shot primarily in New Mexico, the U.S.-Mexico coproduction is assembled attractively enough, with Thomas Scott Stanton’s widescreen camerawork and Jordan Seigel’s original score among its more pleasing elements. But the screenplay is a kind of deep-dyed mediocrity that the film and its cast cannot transcend.

‘Half Brothers’ Review: A Labored Bilingual Buddy Comedy

Reviewed online, San Francisco, Dec. 4, 2020. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 96 MIN.

  • Production: (Mexico-U.S.) A Focus Features release and presentation of a Jason Shuman Prods., Eduardo Cisneros Prods. production. Producers: Jason Shuman, Eduardo Cisernos, Luke Greenfield, Jason Benoit. Executive producers: Luis Gerardo Mendez, Udi Nedivi.
  • Crew: Director: Luke Greenfield. Screenplay: Eduardo Cisernos, Jason Shuman; story: Ali LeRoi, Eduardo Cisernos. Camera: Thomas Scott Stanton. Editor: Joe Mitacek. Music: Jordan Seigel.
  • With: Luis Gerardo Mendez, Connor Del Rio, Juan Pablo Espinosa, Pia Watson, Bianca Marroquin, Ashley Poole, Ian Inigo, Mike Salazar, Jose Zuniga, Vincent Spano, Beatrice Hernandez, Alma Sisneros. (English, Spanish dialogue)