In my Senior year of high school, a friend and I wrote a one-act play that got chosen for the school's Playwriting Festival. When it came time to cast the thing, a musical, my friend wanted to go with a proven musical theater talent and I wanted to go with someone totally off the beaten path who I know would put in ten times the energy. The result would be different, and perhaps not technically as good, but it would feel more infused with life and, more interestingly, show the regular audience for the school plays a talent they didn't expect.
This is sort of why Brothers is as good as it is. Since showing great promise in films like The Ice Storm, The Cider House Rules, and Wonder Boys, Tobey Maguire has mostly been sidelined over the last decade, greatly improving the Spider-Man films but never really given the chance to a) invest himself totally in a role, and b) show people that he had other talents. Jake Gyllenhaal has proven one of the most uneven actors of his generation, either turning in tremendous performances in Donnie Darko or Jarhead, middling efforts in Brokeback Mountain, Moonlight Mile, or Proof, or almost distractingly uncommitted performances in The Day After Tomorrow and Zodiac. Natalie Portman, meanwhile, has almost always done something totally different, a little risky, and surprisingly challenging.
So color me surprised that Natalie Portman is the least compelling aspect of an otherwise astounding ensemble. Maguire's performance is a revelation, and even when he's not up to the task at hand, his sheer commitment and unrelenting effort is more than commendable. He never once hedges or withholds; it's all out there. Gyllenhaal, however, is the best part of this, and this is the best part of his career. He's given the framework for a fairly stock character and invests it with so much humanity, grace, and tenderness. There are so many obvious ways to play a guy trying to turn his life around, and Gyllenhaal is never given, nor does he seek, a shortcut. It's just there in his face.
Portman's problem is that she's handed a character with nothing we can latch onto. In terms of screentime, she's easily the main character, but we never really know her beyond her role in this story. When she begs Maguire to stay home, is it last-minute desperation and a natural desire to hold onto the person you love, or does she fundamentally oppose his career? Theoretically the former, but we never know. It's a small detail, but those sorts of things are essential to building a character. What we don't find out about her doesn't seem purposeful; this isn't Charles Foster Kane or Daniel Plainview. This is a person we're supposed to feel for and invest in, and we never know if she means what she's saying, or what she means by it.
And she's what holds the movie back from being among the year's best. Believe me when I say that for such a rote story that was also saddled with a trailer that gave away the whole story, this is a deeply moving film about how we relate to the people we're born with. I shouldn't have doubted writer David Benioff (adapting a 2004 film by Susanne Bier) after 25th Hour, and I certainly shouldn't have doubted director Jim Sheridan after In America, which, to whatever extent it was actually based on his story of coming to America, was incredibly formulaic but never less than profoundly moving and inspiring.
And pretty much, we get the same for Brothers - every time he gets close to cliche (Sam Shepard's character is one wrong move away from saying "The wrong kid died!"), he twists it or invests the situation with deeper meaning, executed by something as simple as a baby crawling around a corner. His delicate balance of several family conflicts around a dinner table, slowly mounting through the sound of a balloon, is a masterstroke, and one of the best scenes of the year.
If I've focused more on acting in this review than is typically the case, it's because (surprise, surprise) it's an actor's film. This is a story best told through the performances, and the real thrill of this film is seeing something new in actors we thought we had pegged (as though it were possible to like Clifton Collins, Jr. even more, he's in here too, and he's SO much better than he has to be). In its best moments, this is the product of assembling the right people for the job, and getting the best work out of them.