THE BROTHERS MCMULLEN (1995) ***
In a clever opening, after the funeral of Mr. McMullen, Mrs. McMullen and her middle son Barry (the film's writer-director) stand alone by the grave. Sweetly but firmly she announces that she's returning to Ireland. She will join the man she has loved for 35 years, during all of which, with Catholic patience and principles, she had remained ill-married to Mr. McMullen. Here and later we learn that the husband was a drunkard, a bully, a wife-and-children abuser. "Don't make the same mistake" Mom tells Barry, that is, don't enter into a bad marriage.
Five years later we meet all three brothers in the Long Island house of senior brother Jack. Jack and Irish-American wife Molly are the ideal couple, married five years, joking, joshing and loving each other to perdition. Barry, a budding script-writer just out of college, takes his religious faith rather lightly, feels lost outside the academic cocoon, and is cynically-humorously afraid of commitments. The youngest, Patrick, makes his to-the-bone Catholicism as clear and loud as the call of angels' trumpets.
As Pat and Barry live temporarily at Jack's, all three brothers exchange advice and opinions and try to influence one another. The talk is almost exclusively about women. The funny thing is that Pat, who is more Catholic than the Pope, has a girlfriend, Susan, who is Jewish. Their prudent love-making is not for procreation. The funny thing about diffident Barry is that after he meets for a second time beautiful Audry (Maxine Bahns, Burns' real girl-friend), the "thief" who "stole" an apartment from right under Barry, a very nice relationship develops. The funny thing about wife-adoring Jack is that Ann, a married woman, comes on to him blatantly, calculatingly and ludicrously, until the reluctant fellow yields.
All this sends the McMullen men into a series of tizzies. What with two out of the three having a well-developed sense of sin, and the third (Barry) being smart enough to realize what a sophisticated gem Audry is, moral, guilt and conscience problems swell like hot-air balloons.
The most complex quandaries belong to bewildered Pat, in whose life also enters old school-chum and co-religionist Leslie. She too has problems with superego and id. Or something like that. Smiling, without rancor, she declares: "You can't be a Catholic and have a healthy sex life." "Unless" retorts Pat "you meet your true love."
The plot's details can be quite charming. While the unknown actors lack the glamour, acting savvy and smooth delivery of professionals, this is, not so paradoxically, what makes the male performers ring true. In case your attention wanders a bit, Jack is the athletic one who looks rather like a younger, trimmer and classier Joey Buttafuoco; Barry is the one with the not very good skin and not very good voice; Pat is the shorter one and has the most eloquent face.
The female performances are a mixed bag. The film's construction has awkward bits, minor holes and gauche moments. Nevertheless the whole stands up well. The characters are not really terribly interesting, but then I seem to be saying that about the huge majority of recent pictures. The story is clear, the three men are not all cut from the same cloth, and the absence of whiz-bang photography, editing and blind cinematic ambition is restful.
The film was made over a long series of weekends, with funds from relatives and friends, for (depending on what you read) anywhere from $15,000 to $25,000. Turned down by several festivals (the usual venues for independent works) it was accepted by the Sundance Film Festival. Before (so far as I could find out) it was shown there, it came to the attention of the president of Fox Searchlight Pictures, who took the film, put some of his people plus Mr. Burns to work on revamping, re-editing and shortening it and improving the sound. He had "Brothers" blown up (very sharply) from 16mm to 35mm. The total cost climbed to $400,000 or $500,000 (reports differ), which is still a peanutty sum. Then, at the Sundance Festival, the movie walked off with the 1995 top award.
I suspect that the inner monologues were added too --a clumsy device. The music was also "revised," whatever that means, and that's a blessing: the light, lilting Irish or Irishy music by Seamus Eagan is a delight, and a relief from the heavy, generic scores that prevail these days.