- The Washington Times - Friday, December 4, 2009

In its attempt to examine the war on terror through the lens of family struggles, “Brothers” occasionally works. Ultimately, however, it fails in two respects.

The first is the cardboard cutouts that make up the Cahill family. Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) is your typical black sheep, a troublemaker whom we first see being escorted out of prison for a bank robbery he committed some years earlier. Sam (Tobey Maguire) is the all-American captain in the Marine Corps, the high school quarterback who ended up marrying his cheerleading sweetheart Grace (Natalie Portman).

Hank (Sam Shepard), meanwhile, is the gruff father who can’t hide his disappointment in Tommy or his admiration for Sam. Needless to say, family dinners tend to be a wee bit stressful when these stereotypes come into conflict.

The second way in which “Brothers” doesn’t quite work revolves around the emotional highlights, which come across as forced and untrue to the characters.

Sam’s helicopter is shot down during a mission in Afghanistan. Although his family is told that he has died, he is, instead, in a Taliban prison camp, where he suffers at the hands of his captors. Eventually, he is pushed to do something so terrible it breaks him mentally.

But the shocking action Sam is forced to take seems to come out of nowhere. Up to that point, he has been strong, refusing to participate in a video disavowing the war in Afghanistan or do anything else that would dishonor him or his country. The emotional breaking point he crosses feels, at best, unearned, and at worst, extremely manipulative.

Returning home with post-traumatic stress disorder, Sam finds his children less than thrilled with his rise from the dead and is convinced that Grace and Tommy are sleeping together. When one of his girls blows up during a birthday party, Sam snaps.

That blowup by the daughter is the second emotional moment that simply doesn’t ring true. It’s all the more surprising because the two girls (played by Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare) are outstanding up to that point: cute but not overly so, and naturalistic in a way that few children manage to accomplish.

Their turn isn’t the only fine one in this picture: Mr. Gyllenhaal and Miss Portman are both excellent as the grieving family members, while Mr. Shepard does a fine job as a gravelly voiced vet trying to connect with his son, even if his was only a very thinly sketched role.

The one disappointment is Mr. Maguire, who is all bug eyes and amped-up intensity. His performance never quite gels with the others.

★★
TITLE: “Brothers”
RATING: R (language and some disturbing violent content)
CREDITS: Directed by Jim Sheridan
RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes
WEB SITE: www.brothersfilm.com
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS