The big summer studio releases of 1995 cost millions to make. Some low-budget films play at selected art houses. Then there is the no-budget film like The Brothers McMullen.
Brothers cost only $20,000 to make, which is less than one wet second of Waterworld. It was filmed mostly on weekends over an eight-month period, whenever the cast and crew could make it through the disastrous snowstorms that hit the Northeast during the winter of 1994. Twenty-two days of scheduled shooting took eight months to complete, because of production delays and personal mishaps, such as the director's attack of appendicitis and a slipped disk in the camera operator's back.
A splendidly acted, character-driven film, The Brothers McMullen is a very personal statement by first-time director/writer Edward Burns, who cast himself to save money. "I thought," he has said, "if I was in the movie, it was one less mouth to feed, and I knew I'd show up every day."
No big names are attached to the production, but, in retrospect, Burns just might change that. The terrific ensemble of actors is committed, believable and perfectly cast.
At Thanksgiving, an early director's cut was accepted by Robert Redford's Sundance film festival. Burns and co-producer Dick Fisher were still in the editing room, working on the final cut, when they got the news that they had won the 1995 Grand Jury Prize for Best Picture. Fox Searchlight, a new division of 20th Century Fox, offered to distribute the film immediately upon completion.
Burns set the picture in a working-class neighborhood, using the house he grew up in. Burns' parents huddled in whatever rooms were available while the film was being shot. His mother cooked for everyone. The result is a labor of love.
The Brothers McMullen is a brilliant debut for Burns and a delightful group of actors. The film is a hard-edged, warm-hearted romantic comedy that will charm and delight, a contemporary examination of true love and family bonds.
Three Irish Catholic brothers struggle with careers, failing relationships, personal identities and the question, "How do you know the person you're with is the right one?" Their quest provides a delightful journey that takes us back and forth from arty Greenwich Village to blue-collar Long Island. The film spans the time the McMullen brothers spend together over a series of Catholic holidays: Christmas, Saint Patrick's Day, Palm Sunday and Easter.
The three brothers are brought together for a few months in the house where they grew up, and where they suffered attacks by their drunken, wife-beating, abusive father. The middle brother, Barry, a bit of a clown and a screenwriter by profession (brilliantly played by Burns), wisecracks at a dinner, "I visited Dad's grave. Happy to report he's still dead."
Their mother, whom we meet briefly in flashbacks, returned to Ireland on the day of their father's funeral to be with the man she'd really loved for 35 years. Her parting words to her three sons were, "Don't make the same mistake."
Screenwriter Barry has a production deal in the works and he has no desire to commit to a permanent relationship. He brings his girlfriend, Ann (a seductive Elizabeth P. McKay), to the family dinner, where the morality of John F. Kennedy's extramarital affairs is debated, along with other issues that come up over the same corned beef and cabbage that fed the movie crew.
The oldest brother, Jack (deftly played by Jack Mulcahy), is a high school basketball coach on Long Island who adores his beautiful wife, Molly (played sensitively and evocatively by Connie Britton), but is not ready to commit to having children.
After the footloose Barry breaks off his relationship with Ann, Jack drives her back into town and she launches a no-holds-barred seduction. Jack is tempted, but the idea of hurting Molly is a serious deterrent.
The youngest of the trio is Patrick (flawlessly played by Mike McGlone), who's both hopelessly romantic and a devout Catholic. He's deeply shocked when more-liberated brother Jack dismisses his piety with, "Fuck God." Patrick is engaged to be married to a Jewish American Princess from the Upper West Side. Susan (incisively played by Shari Albert) has a rich father in the garment business who has offered to buy Patrick a one-bedroom apartment in her building. When they are married, Patrick is expected to join the father's business and the couple will be given a two-bedroom wedding present.
Patrick wonders whether he loves Susan, or even if he understands what being in love means. With his brother Barry's counseling, Patrick realizes he doesn't want the apartment, the job or to convert to Judaism. He just wants out of the relationship--and fast, before he is doomed to a lifetime of regrets.
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Burns has written a thought-provoking film that dissects such Irish Catholic dilemmas as extramarital sex, birth control and abortion. We come to care about these very real brothers and their very real concerns. We share their happiness and their losses.
The Brothers McMullen is a hilarious and touching film about romantic confusion. It is a film about choices and the mistakes we sometimes make in looking for love, and how those choices shake up our daily lives.
Perhaps the best single element is the soundtrack. Irish folk musician Seamus Egan has created a Gaelic score based on traditional sources that binds the film together beautifully and gives a sense of the McMullen clan's heritage.
Burns is a very talented young writer and director, and an accomplished actor. The Brothers McMullen is a stunning debut.