The Brothers McMullen Movie Review

Movie Review By Anthony Leong © Copyright 1997

Let me ask you something Barry-- what do I do now?
What are you, retarded? You wipe it off and then put it in the dishwasher,
okay genius?
No, not that... I mean, my life.

In honor of St. Patrick's Day, here is an ambitious film that revolves around an Irish-American family that is one of my personal favorites.

Edward Burns was working as a technician on "Entertainment Tonight" when he put together "The Brothers McMullen" over a period of eight months with $30,000, actors that worked for next-to-nothing, and borrowed equipment. It paid off handsomely when it won at the Sundance Film Festival, the showcase for independent film in the United States, and caught the attention of Robert Redford. Subsequently, Ed got backing and big name stars for his follow-up project, "She's the One", which recently came out on video.

So how do I do it?
You came to the right man. It's really quite simple. The key is finding the right place. I usually like to meet them at work, because you usually have a lot of people around, they're not going to make a big scene, and you don't have to drive them home after you just broke their heart.

It is a romantic comedy following the misadventures of three brothers in an Irish family living in New York. The oldest brother, Jack (Jack Mulcahy), is happily married to Molly (Connie Britton), but is tempted by an ex-girlfriend of one of his brothers, Ann (Elizabeth McKay). The middle brother, Barry (Edward Burns, the writer/director), is a budding writer/director who is afraid of commitment and crosses paths with a budding actress, Audry (Maxine Bahns, Edward Burns real-life girlfriend). Finally, the youngest brother, Jack (Jack Mulcahy, who along with Ed and Maxine, appears again in "She's the One") is about to be married to Susan (Shari Albert), but is unsure if she is actually his soul-mate, especially when he meets Leslie (Jennifer Jostyn), an old high school friend (oh I get it, each brother represents the different phases of a relationship). And so as the three stories run their course, Ed explores the varying approaches to the emotional black hole called relationships, comments on religion, and the brothers help each other better understand the women they love. A favorite scene that would sum it all up would be the bathroom scene-- Jack, having committed adultery, goes into the small washroom where Patrick, the most religious of the three brothers, is sitting on the toilet, and seeks advice (a small enclosed space, a seated religious figure, and a confession being made...hmmm).

You know, sometimes I think in our lives when we grow accustomed to things we start not to see them anymore or look past them, and we sort of have a tendency to, I don't know, to want something new and different, because we feel like that it will fulfill something we need in our lives. I think it's important to look at what we do have in our lives and what brought us there in the first place.

It is a great little film, well-written (compare it to "She's the One", which was essentially the same story) and of surprisingly high quality given the conditions in which Ed had to work in. The acting is on average very good, with Edward Burns, Jack Mulcahy, and Connie Britton leading the pack, though there are some scenes where it is obvious that the actors are ad-libbing their lines. In terms of technical competence, there is only one dolly-shot, some of the scenes suffer from a bit of camera jiggle in the outdoor shots, one scene in particular stands out because of its grainy look due to Ed's use of expired film stock, and he even does a pseudo-crane shot (he asked some construction workers to hoist up a camera onto some scaffolding).

You can't be Catholic and have a healthy sex life.

TBM is also a testament to what can be done with an extremely low budget (the average independent film is usually budgeted between $500,000 and $2,000,000). Ed did not get permits to film on the New York subway system-- he merely carried a hidden camera onto the trains. Likewise, he was fortunate not to be stopped by police when he was filming on New York streets with his conspicuous camera crew (camera man, sound man, light man, actors), since filming in New York requires permits (money) from City Hall. Unable to film in a restaurant, Ed came up with a convincing reason to rewrite a scene such that the two characters come out of the restaurant, and then talk on the street. Another trick to cut down on costs and technical challenges was the scene at the beginning when Jack drives Ann home. Jack parks the car first, and then they talk (camera through the driver's side window), which avoided the use of two cars and lighting problems had they spoken while the car was moving.

What the hell do you expect it to smell like... hey! I'm going to the bathroom, do you mind?!
Well yeah, but you ought to be going to see a doctor, either that or getting Molly to change butchers.

For added value, try catching all the little continuity errors that pop up. For example, in the opening dinner party scene, the color of Patrick's tie changes three times, before, during, and after dinner. Ann's hair shrinks between dinner and when she is driven home by Jack. In some scenes, it will look like a nice spring day, and in the scene immediately following, the Hudson River will be frozen over. Jack drops Ann off and by the time he gets home, his jacket has changed. Two cars appear and disappear between a close-up and a wide-angle shot near the end. These errors, of course, occurred because the scenes were shot out of sequence over a period of eight months, subject to the availability of the actors and locations, making it difficult to match up all aspects (hair, clothing, placement of props) exactly. The opening dinner sequence was filmed at the end of eight months, the pre-dinner scene was filmed half-way through, and the post-dinner scene was filmed at the beginning of the eight months.

But despite these transgressions, TBM was an enjoyable film overall (a stronger and more tightly-written film than "She's the One"), proof that you don't need a lot of money to make a good commercial product, and an inspiration to independent film-makers everywhere.

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