Fox // 1995 // 98 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // November 22nd, 2012
Jack is trying to save his marriage. Patrick is in a hopeless relationship. But their biggest problem is Barry's brotherly advice.
If you were going to make a time capsule of '90s cinema, Edward Burns' directorial debut The Brothers McMullen would require a spot right next to Clerks; an example of the kind of do-it-yourself movie that became a festival favorite and announced a new voice in mini/major filmmaking. Shot for just $24,000 using his childhood home, unpaid actors wearing their own clothes, and a script consisting entirely of people sitting around talking, The Brothers McMullen went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival, got picked up by Fox Searchlight (the first film put out by the studio's boutique label), received a major theatrical push, and eventually grossed $10 million -- over 400 times its original budget. Such was the 1990s.
In addition to writing and directing, Burns stars as Barry, the middle of the three McMullen brothers, good Irish Catholic boys living and loving in New York. The oldest is Jack (Jack Mulcahy, Porky's), married to the wonderful Molly (Connie Britton, Friday Night Lights) but considering straying for the first time. Youngest Patrick (Mike McGlone, She's the One) is engaged to a Jewish girl, but it's becoming more and more clear every day that their differences -- and his intense Catholic guilt -- will doom the relationship. Another nail in the coffin arrives in the form of an old friend (Jennifer Jostyn, House of 1000 Corpses) who moves back into town and takes an interest in Patick. Finally, there's Barry, a soon-to-be alcoholic writer and confirmed bachelor whose world is turned upside down when he meets Audry (Maxine Bahns, The Mentalist), a girl who has his number before he even realizes he's fallen for her.
And that's basically the movie -- these different relationships play out with various combinations of characters sitting around talking. Burns is clearly inspired by Woody Allen, and though he lacks Woody's talent for dialogue, he does have a knack for recreating a certain kind of New York experience, with middle class Irish Catholic filling in for Jewish intellectuals. Though the title would lead one to expect a movie about family -- and, to some extent, it is -- the story is more concerned with romantic relationships, and the ways men allow their egos, pride, and misconceptions stand in the way of being good partners to the women in their lives. The female characters don't get off scott free, however. They're either idealized perfection (Connie Britton, Maxine Bahns) or grossly stereotypical (Elizabeth McKay plays every "other woman" you've ever seen in a movie; Shari Albert's Jewish American princess borders on offensive, not in the way she plays it but in the way it's written). For the most part, though, Burns' movies are about men too stupid to see the great thing that's right in front of them. That all starts here.
It's hard to imagine that The Brothers McMullen will appeal to many new viewers in 2012. The acting is uneven. The staging is stiff. The cinematography is static. It's the kind of movie that belongs firmly in 1995, and anyone with an appreciation for that era in independent cinema probably has fond memories of the movie. Everyone else will wonder what the big deal is. But the movie has a real sincerity to it -- Burns isn't really trying to create his calling card for Hollywood (even if that's what it ended up being) and isn't slavishly aping existing trends (the decade could only support so many bullet comedy Tarantino rip-offs). He made The Brothers McMullen because he really wanted to make a movie and tell a specific story. It's also the kind of movie that inspired a number of other independent filmmakers, as Burns' do-it-yourself approach made writing and directing movies seem possible even without a lot of resources.
Fox's Blu-ray of The Brothers McMullen is part of the studio's "Signature Series," which is pretty much a meaningless distinction. And though this isn't the sort of movie one might expect to get the HD treatment, the transfer is very good at recreating the way the film looked when it was first released. Burns shot the picture on the cheap, using mostly the unused ends of old 16mm reels (called short ends), so this was never a slick or polished looking experience. The visuals are grainy and soft, utilizing natural light almost entirely, which can sometimes give everything a faded appearance. Having said that, the 1.85:1/1080p HD image is incredibly faithful to the source, as it should be. Not every movie can look like Transformers, especially if it wasn't filmed that way to begin with. The only audio option is a DTS-HD 1.0 Mono track, but it's more than capable of carrying the constant dialogue and occasional voiceover.
Ed Burns' commentary track has appeared on previous DVD releases of the movie, but it's well worth revisiting. Like all of the director's commentaries, it's filled with tips and advice for would-be filmmakers, and very frank about the choices and compromises that sometimes had to be made due to budget limitations. Also included is an episode of Fox Legacy, a short show made for the Fox Movie Channel hosted by former studio head Tom Rothman (the guy who originally picked up The Brothers McMullen for Fox). It provides a decent overview of how the movie went from low-budget indie to studio release in a short amount of time, but anyone who already listened to Burns' commentary isn't going to hear any new information. Lastly, there's the film's original theatrical trailer (presented in HD) and a pretty hefty booklet filled with production information.
Almost 20 years (!!) after it was released, The Brothers McMullen remains a charming and well-intentioned snapshot of a very specific moment in '90s cinema. It's a movie made up almost entirely of rough edges, but it's modest, engaging and sweet. It's not a movie that's crying out for the HD treatment, but Fox has done a nice job with it. With the '90s indie wave a thing of the past, movies like this rarely get made anymore, and filmmakers rarely have a story like Burns does. The Brothers McMullen offers us a glimpse of both.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 1995
MPAA Rating: Rated R