The romantic troubles of three Irish-Catholic brothers on Long Island don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, but that didn’t stop The Brothers McMullen from picking up the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Enchanted, perhaps, as much by 27-year-old filmmaker Edward Burns’ own rags-to-distributor success story as by the slight, pleasant product itself, the jury liked the feature for its sweet, sometimes funny, yet essentially earnest look at the forces of sex, religion, and family in the search for a successful love relationship. Despite being happily married for five years, oldest brother Jack (Jack Mulcahy) strays into an affair. Despite being all-but-engaged, youngest brother Patrick (Mike McGlone), the most serious Catholic of the lot, feels unsure about the (Jewish) longtime girlfriend with whom he has had (forbidden) sex. Despite swearing that he wants no romantic commitments, middle brother Barry (Burns, who also wrote and produced) is drawn to a woman who won’t let him off the emotional hook so easily.
Good setup. The weaknesses of Brothers, however, are not due to budget constraints, although more professional actors, particularly in the women’s roles, would have been a boost. Rather, they lie in a simplistic approach to character that, I’m going to wager, will mature as the filmmaker himself does. Burns’ men are passive. His women are demanding unless they’re saints, like Jack’s wife. His exploration of contemporary Irish Catholicism is as yet unfocused; often Patrick’s orthodoxy appears eccentric or, worse, droll — neither of which does justice to the complexities of faith. And Burns’ characters frequently speechify rather than converse. Now that he’s gotten our attention, I hope this bright, smart, lucky filmmaker will concentrate on creating stories with more depth. I have a feeling it’s in him; he just needs money enough, and time. B-