Our review of The Brothers McMullen (Blu-ray) Signature Series, published November 22nd, 2012, is also available.
Sometimes the best friends are those you've known your whole life.
I appreciate dialogue-driven films about regular people engaged in everyday conversations about believable life issues. Furthermore, I have the utmost respect for those low-budget debut features from young talent—-the types of films that may not have the total Hollywood polish or slick savvy of a veteran production, but still exhibit that little kernel of inborn ability that will certainly burst into something special on future projects with better material. It is hard not to be impressed by anyone who possesses the raw ambition to not only write, but also direct, finance, and star in his or her own independent feature film. Displaying considerable skill, then first-time director Edward Burns (She's The One, Saving Private Ryan) did all of this in his The Brothers McMullen, winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Best Picture at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival.
Facts of the Case
In The Brothers McMullen, three Irish-Catholic brothers from Long Island, New York, are reunited for several weeks, finding themselves all temporarily living under the same roof again during romantic transitional stages in each of their lives. The oldest brother Jack (Jack Mulcahy—Porky's) is seemingly happily married in a perfect relationship, complete with a nice relaxed lifestyle, but when his wife Molly (Connie Britton) expresses a desire to start a family, he begins harboring temptations of straying into an affair with femme fatale Anne (Elizabeth McKay). Middle brother Barry (Ed Burns) is a cynical screenwriter with a pessimistic view of commitment and feels he is unable to ever fully experience true love, that is until he meets and falls for Audrey (Maxine Bahns). Finally, the youngest brother, Patrick (Mike McGlone), is a devout Catholic experiencing his own crisis; fresh from college life, but not yet ready to be a "real guy with a real life," he is torn between his strict religious convictions and a lingering doubt over his love for Susan (Shari Albert), his longtime Jewish girlfriend applying the marital pressure. The three brothers are forced to look within, and ultimately to each other, in dealing with these difficult times and intertwined romantic mishaps.
Made on a relatively miniscule budget of around $25,000, The Brothers McMullen was filmed on weekends over the course of some eight months. Ed Burns wrote, co-produced, directed, and acted in the film, all while holding a regular full-time job as a production assistant on television's Entertainment Tonight. While many budding auteurs shoot independent films on spare weekends, few likely exhibit the kind of humorous yet observant introspection that Burns evokes in his debut feature. The Brothers McMullen works its sly charm as it goes along, regularly offering painfully funny ruminations on everything from life and love, to religion and fear of commitment, all the while celebrating their Irish heritage and the bond between brothers.
Like Robert Rodriguez's El Mariachi, The Brothers McMullen represents renegade filmmaking at its finest. For instance, the McMullen house in the movie is actually the very house that Burns grew up in; he shot in his parent's home while they continued to reside there, with Burns's mother cooking for the cast and crew! Deals were made with a handshake—-no one working on the film was paid upfront. They secured no expensive licenses for outside footage, instead just quickly sneaking the camera in and out, and stealing the location shots they needed with no permit. Burns consolidated locations to further save money and, of course, no catering, makeup, wardrobe, or set dressing was provided for the entire production.
Pleasantly acted, yet balanced with sarcastic, biting one-liners, The Brothers McMullen does suffer from low production values and an overly sentimental, convenient ending. However, the story truly works its little charm over you, even if it's so blatantly obvious where each subplot is heading at all times. The wonderful chemistry between the cast helps alleviate these shortcomings, making it very easy for the audience to comfortably feel like they are a part of this lively, introspective McMullen household. You do not have to be a New Yorker, Catholic, Irish, or even American to fully grasp the universal theme of the richness of humanity cited in The Brothers McMullen.
It's the luck of the Irish that this film has finally made its way onto the superior DVD format. Originally shot on 16mm, The Brothers McMullen was eventually blown up to 35mm, giving it a very grainy look and making even the bright scenes appear dim. Thus, any problem with the picture on this disc can fairly be attributed to the shortcomings of its source print and the low-budget nature of the entire original production. Keeping in mind that nearly every shot utilizes only available natural light sources, the colors and flesh tones are still fairly vibrant notwithstanding these noted limitations. Additionally, Burns used recanned film stock while shooting this film, thus further contributing to the largely evident grainy, muddy shots. In spite of this, Fox has still released a nice anamorphic widescreen transfer of The Brothers McMullen in its original 1.85:1 theatrical ratio, which should satisfy fans looking to upgrade their pan and scan VHS copies of the film.
Also included exclusive to this DVD is what's touted as a newly created Dolby 2.0 stereo mix. In actuality, this mix is not that different from the original mono track also included, and they are both acceptable for a wholly dialogue-driven film like this. The soundtrack is very clear so you will have no problem hearing and hanging onto every word of Barry McMullen's hilarious comparison of relationships to peeling and slicing a banana, a comic highlight of the film. The sound mix also accentuates the traditional Irish folk music by Seamus Egan. This eclectic choice of background score actually works very well within the context of the scenes.
Also worth mentioning is the primary extra included on this DVD—a fantastically insightful commentary track by the well-spoken Ed Burns. By way of comparison, his track is like Robert Rodriguez's commentary on his El Mariachi disc; both young directors talk openly about all facets of renegade, no-budget filmmaking, sharing their little cost-cutting secrets and humorous anecdotes about the highlights and hardships in making their debut independent features on the cheap. For any aspiring filmmaker, this is film school in a keep case, and well worth a listen.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
A primary complaint would be that the performances and production design are strictly amateur night—and this is decidedly true (heck, the only actor with previous film experience played the guy with the crooked penis in Porky's!), but is ultimately what gives The Brothers McMullen its genuine charm. Remember, none of the actors or crewmembers was even paid. Indeed, most of the performers had never been in front of the camera before; they were then non-SAG freelancers working for the experience and a free lunch. To me, this quality gives the film its pseudo-documentary, real-life feel that eventually works in the movie's favor to make it a superior overall project.
One could also find fault with the apparent lack of additional supplements such as deleted scenes and outtakes, but not every DVD release has to be fully loaded and given the Fight Club treatment. The fantastic commentary track included here more than makes up for any other bonus material not contained within. I, for one, am not complaining about the overall presentation of this package.
I really do not have anything exceedingly negative to say about this release. The film is what it is—a sweet little slice-of-life movie made on no budget, a labor of love produced by a talented young man realizing his cinematic dreams. I like edgy, dark cinema as much as the next guy, but every once in a while you need to see a film like The Brothers McMullen to remind yourself that you do indeed have some emotion buried within that cold outer frame. Those looking only for a slick chick-flick though, should probably proceed directly to the latest Julia Roberts Hollywood blockbuster.
The Brothers McMenendez are found guilty of first-degree murder in the shotgun slayings of their parents and hereby sentenced to…uh, my bad, wrong case—The Brothers McMullen are acquitted of all charges and released to their respective loved ones. Any fan of this film should smash their worn VHS copy against the blarney stone, run to their local DVD retailer, upgrade, and add this disc to their permanent film library.
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