Speaking as what I would refer to as a "recovering" Catholic, first time filmmaker Edward Burns has definitely struck a nerve with his new film, "The Brothers McMullen". Of course, a child of any parochial upbringing can appreciate at least some of the messages contained in this heartfelt little tale, as "The Brothers McMullen" tackles problems and feelings that are central to any guilt-ridden, God-fearing psyche.
The questions raised by the three McMullen brothers are what propel this movie forward. Following the death of their alcoholic, abusive father, the brothers are left to fend for themselves, as their mother leaves them for her true love who has waited for her back in Ireland for the past thirty years. As she leaves them at the graveyard, she warns her cynical middle son, Barry, "Don't make the same mistake I did." Barry, of course, takes the warning to heart, and uses it to justify his nearly pathological fear of commitment, even though he's met Audry, the absolutely perfect woman for him.
Oldest brother Jack, meanwhile, is wondering if he's chosen the right life long partner, and is being tempted by an alluring free-thinker. As he struggles with his conscience, he has to deal with other problems: his two younger brothers are moving in, leaving him with little room to sneak around and avoid his wife's suspicious stares.
The youngest brother, Patrick, has a whole snoot-full of his own problems. His Jewish girlfriend is pressuring him to move in together and convert to Judaism, and is quickly planning a life together that he just doesn't want. Back that up with a rather large helping of hard-core Catholic guilt, and Patrick is one messed up guy, wrestling with his own personal demons while trying to figure out the direction his life will take.
As all these tensions reach the boiling point, the McMullens wise-crack their way through living together again, slowly coming to grips with their lives while they struggle to understand themselves and each other.
Now, much of this is what you would expect from a first film: lots of dialogue that doesn't require much camera movement and a kind of "shoestring" approach that is not concerned with "effects" of any kind. What is a surprise is the incredibly high quality of the entire production. As a first time director, Ed Burns has created a terrific movie, complete with well rounded characters that never react predictably, and a script that is not only tight, but is also quite profound in dealing with the nature of love and family.
Luckily, the script is supported by a fine ensemble cast, led by Burns himself as the philosophical, cynical middle child, Barry. In many ways, Barry is the consummate movie linchpin: he sums up the feelings of his brothers in his many tirades against the nature of life, and Burns delivers a performance that is dead on. But, the actor who almost steals the film is Mike McGlone as the suffering, Catholic guilt-wracked youngest McMullen, Patrick. Patrick's inner turmoil becomes a kind of comic tragedy as he plays out his fears on screen and suffers in ways that any Catholic school graduate can relate to. As for the rest of you, you'll enjoy "The Brothers McMullen" anyway.
Copyright 1995 John A. Lavin
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