Love and Death and Brotherhood

To say that Edward Burns' first film, The Brothers McMullen, owes a debt to Woody Allen is to understate the matter wildly. Burns' milieu is Irish (rather than Jewish) New York, but in almost every particular — from the smartass kvetching to the philosophical discussions of love on Manhattan side streets to the film's naturally lit graininess — the movie is a direct and worthy descendant of Annie Hall.

It's just about as funny as its Oscar-winning antecedent. At times the movie's derivativeness is uncomfortably naked (one character's interior monologue about the meaning of life; another's joke about pessimists never being disappointed), but for the most part The Brothers McMullen establishes and sustains a restless comic patter that's distinctly its own. Like Allen, Burns (who wrote, directed, and stars in the film) manages to merge his comedy-club shtick with real issues in real lives — a deft layering of jokes and small, sharp tragedies that deepens the movie's timbre. His characters are goofily engaging, and because they're multidimensional, they can strike the occasional plaintive note without sounding fake or strained.

The brothers McMullen are three. The oldest, Jack (Jack Mulcahy), a 33-year-old side of beef with curly dark hair, appears the most stable. He has a pretty wife, Molly (Connie Britton), who wants children; the couple live in the family house on Long Island. (The universally reviled paterfamilias is five years in his grave, and his wife — the boys' mother — has returned to Ireland to be with her true love.)

The two younger sons are adrift in their 20s. Barry (Burns), a handsome smartass and self-styled loser, aspires to literary and cinematic glory. He dismisses “true love” with contempt and riffles through women as if they were losing lottery tickets.

The youngest, Patrick (Mike McGlone), who looks like an overripe Eddie Munster, is a zealot in search of a cause. He believes in Catholicism and true love and finds both to be difficult — possibly unworkable — propositions. He dates a Jewish girl, Sue (Shari Albert); when they have sex he dons two rubbers out of guilt, as if that extra skin of separation, by further diminishing his pleasure, will somehow lessen the sin he's committing. She wants to get married and move in together. He doesn't, until she breaks up with him; then he thinks the best chance of his life has slipped through his fingers.

The Brothers McMullen is a film about young men that's willing to risk cliche in the interest of accuracy. There's nothing especially original about the brothers' endless cud-chewing about sex and love, guilt and responsibility, but then those ruminations aren't too original in life, either — which doesn't stop people from going over it all time and time again. The movie does what art must do to succeed: It treats everyday concerns with a concentrated, stylish wittiness that lays open its subjects' lives.

Barry, oddly, is the movie's slightest, if funniest, character. The other brothers' concerns are considerably more immediate — and intense. Jack, in particular, is chafing inside his comfy domestic bonds. Five happy years with Molly have left him slightly distracted, half-aware of an unidentified twinge inside, but it's not until Barry asks him if he's ever cheated on her that his discomfort takes shape.

When Ann (Elizabeth P. McKay), one of Barry's foxy castoffs, makes a pass at Jack, he succeeds in resisting, but the effort exhausts him. It's clear he can't hold out indefinitely. She keeps after him like a ferret hunting weary prey, and finally he gives in, with a depressing mix of lust, resignation, and, of course, guilt.

Guilt hangs over the movie like a cold fog. The brothers McMullen are a bright, voluble lot; they recognize as an intellectual matter that “true love” is a concoction of sentimentality; that Catholicism cannot withstand reasoned scrutiny; that men take erotic delight in strangeness. They know they're not bad guys, and they suspect they're not really going to hell, but they're guilty and ashamed anyway. Their guilt is emotional and fundamental; it's etched into the very design of their lives. It's Catholic.

New York, as captured by Burns' camera, accents the movie's sense of moral anxiety. The gray skies, leafless trees, and iced-over lake in Central Park are like chilly details from Bergman's Scandinavia. The sun, in its brief appearances, casts a watery autumn light that merely confirms how cold it is outside. Everyone is wrapped in several smart layers of clothes; there's almost no skin in the movie. Every sexual act is furtive, a little awkward, laced with guilt; it's as if these characters have sex not for its own sake, but to have something to agonize over later.

What would a little sunshine do to these people? Jack's not likely to find out; he's trapped in the East, with a house and a maddeningly noble wife who forgives him his waywardness after letting him know he's a coward for not admitting what he's done. But Barry has got his eye on L.A., where Hollywood potentates have taken an interest in his screenplay. And Patrick, after reuniting with Sue just long enough to understand she's not his true love after all, agrees to drive to California with his high-school friend Leslie (Jennifer Jostyn), whose life is equally shapeless.

If the brothers often seem stifled in their native surroundings, they also enjoy the ancient rhythms of family. As Molly says, when Jack tells her that his two younger brothers will be staying with them for a while (up in their old digs, the attic), “You can't say no to family.” The boys' casual hatred of their long-dead father — a drunken, bellowing wife-beater — is disturbing, as is their mother's abandonment of them.

But it is a tribute to their family feeling, that warm clannishness, that they've remained a family despite their rotten parents and the very real differences in temperament and circumstance among them. For all their hashing and rehashing of love and women and marriage, they know on some level that they are the great loves of one another's lives — and they always will be.

The Brothers McMullen continues at the Embarcadero in S.F. and opens Fri, Aug. 18, at UA Colma in S.F., the Grand Lake in Oakland, and UA Berkeley.

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