Let’s Get Emotional in the Snow

Natalie Portman, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Tobey Maguire in Brothers.

Tobey Maguire and Natalie Portman in Brothers

Brothers (Lionsgate), Jim Sheridan’s remake of a 2004 Danish film about two siblings separated by war, does one thing brilliantly well: It casts Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal as brothers. It wasn’t until the time Spider-Man 2 came out that I could reliably tell the two apart, and the resemblance goes beyond the physical. Both actors have a boyish, soft-spoken delivery and a resistance to showboating that serves them well in what could easily be (and occasionally is) a heavy-handed wartime melodrama. And they’re cleverly cast here both for and against type: Gyllenhaal, the edgier and sexier of the two, plays the drunken bad-boy brother who’s secretly a standup guy, while the delicate, guileless-seeming Maguire is a straight-and-narrow Marine who’s forced to confront his dark side when he’s taken prisoner in Afghanistan.

Schematic, yes, but the fairy-tale symmetry of that setup has a primal appeal. Unfortunately, Brothers also assumes that Natalie Portman is interesting enough to watch suffer for two hours. Here I come up against what I’m fully willing to admit may be a personal limitation: I can’t stand Natalie Portman. I’ve never believed her in a single role. She evokes no emotional response in me beyond, “Oh, there’s Natalie Portman.” She doesn’t overact or underact; she just stands around with whatever the appropriate expression for the scene seems to be on her sweet, pretty, childlike face. If there’s something going on behind that face, I neither know nor care what it is, which means that long stretches of Brothers involving her character’s interiority struck me as dramatically inert. If you possess the gene that enables Portman-caring, you may find them brilliant.

So Sam (Maguire), the upstanding Marine brother, is sent on a tour of duty in Afghanistan. The boys’ alcoholic father (Sam Shepard) makes it uncomfortably clear at Sam’s goodbye dinner that he far prefers his older son to Tommy (Gyllenhaal), a perpetual screw-up who’s just gotten out of prison after a pathetic attempt to hold up a bank. When Sam ships out, his wife, Grace (Portman), takes responsibility for Tommy, rescuing him when he racks up bar bills he can’t pay off. But Tommy rises to the occasion, pitching in to help take care of Grace and Sam’s young daughters (Taylor Geare and Bailee Madison). Slowly, Grace and Tommy’s once strained relationship develops into a friendship then an attraction, though their involvement never goes beyond one marijuana-enabled kiss.

When Sam’s helicopter is shot down over a river, his family is told that he’s dead, but we witness that he and another Marine are taken prisoner and tortured by the Taliban (or maybe al-Qaida—anyway, bad guys with beards and turbans). There, Sam does something awful—so awful, in fact, that it makes no sense for his character and feels like a screenwriter’s contrivance. When he’s eventually rescued by U.S. soldiers and sent home, he has a case of PTSD that reduces him to an emotional zombie. Too disconnected to play with his children or laugh at family jokes, Sam roams the backyard at night with a loaded pistol, obsessing about his brother’s (nonexistent) affair with his wife.

Though Tobey Maguire is as good here as he’s ever been—his clenched neck muscles are enough to show us what it would be like to live in a state of constant fear—the love triangle at the heart of Brothers is curiously uninvolving. We know that the pure and selfless Grace would never really betray her husband—her name is Grace, for God’s sake! She’s played by Natalie Portman!—so her scenes with Gyllenhaal lack tension and heat (or maybe that’s just my Portman thing again). What emotional resonance the movie delivers comes in the moments involving Sam and Grace’s little girls. Sheridan has always had a gift for directing children, and his treatment of these young actresses rigorously skirts sentimental cuteness. A scene in which the older girl deliberately spoils the younger one’s birthday party rings truer than anything that happens among the three adult leads.

The earnest and well-intentioned Brothers falls into that category of films about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that turn these overseas conflicts into springboards for domestic drama. (Stop-Loss, Rendition, and In the Valley of Elah are other examples.) Brothers has nothing more timely to say about war than the fact that going away to fight one can be a really bad experience. This story of fraternal rivalry and spousal temptation could just as easily have been set during WWI, when Sam’s condition would have been known as “shell shock.” After watching this movie, I had what you might call Portman Traumautic Stress Disorder, a condition that leaves you twitchy, irritable, and in need of a well-acted light comedy.

Slate V: The critics on Brothers and other new releases