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Women feature in the The Brothers McMullen principally as a dilemma, yet in classical terms this is a women’s picture. Writer/director/star Edward Burns’ first film, 1995’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner, charts the love lives of three Irish-American brothers in terms that (to think of only recent films) recall the warm-hearted Little Women more than the broad-shouldered Legends of the Fall.
Brothers begins with a woman’s belated surrender to true love. At the funeral of the loathed Mr. McMullen, Mrs. McMullen (Catherine Bolz) takes aside her middle son, Barry (Burns), to inform him that she will leave immediately for Ireland to live with the man she’s secretly loved for 35 years. “Promise me you won’t make the same mistake I made,” she tells him.
Barry doesn’t seem inclined to make such a mistake. A fledgling writer and accomplished philanderer, he has no intention of settling down. But by the time the story gets going—five years later—older brother Jack (Jack Mulcahy) is already married to Molly (Connie Britton), and younger brother Patrick (Mike McGlone) is drifting toward matrimony with Susan (Shari Albert), even though she’s Jewish and Patrick (alone among his brothers) remains seriously Catholic. Due to circumstances sort of beyond their control, the younger McMullens move in with Jack and Molly in the old family homestead on Long Island, so there’s plenty of opportunity for the brothers to advise each other as their emotions get complicated and conflicted.
Patrick begins to feel trapped by the elaborate plans that Susan (and her wealthy, indulgent father) have made for their life together after his imminent graduation from college. Meanwhile, Jack is panicked by Molly’s notification that she’s ready to have children, and contemplates an affair with the sexually aggressive Ann (Elizabeth McKay). His brothers can’t imagine Jack’s cheating on the warm, sympathetic Molly, but the shock that he’s considering it pales next to Barry’s realization that he is actually falling in love with his latest flame, exotically pretty actress Audry (Maxine Bahns, Burns’ real-life girlfriend, who when cast was a classics grad student).
Not an extravagantly funded project, Brothers was shot on weekends over an eight-month period; Burns cast himself as Barry, he remembers, partially because “I knew I’d show up every day.” The film was made while the director was still a production assistant for Entertainment Tonight, and his TV experience clearly benefited him. His on-screen collaborators deserve credit too: They’re all winning, and nearly all of them are convincing (Bahns is a little tentative).
Though Barry is a shallow, wisecracking cad improved by amour, this isn’t exactly When Harry Met Sally… territory. Brothers is funny, but in an uncontrived way that never suggests an acted-out stand-up routine. (Burns has declared his allegiance to Annie Hall, but Brothers‘ kinship is more spiritual than stylistic.) The film is fair to the brothers and their plights, even those—like Patrick’s Catholic quandaries about marriage and abortion—that seem a trifle retro. Burns overdoes the earthiness in scenes like the one where Jack and Patrick discuss adultery while the latter sits on the toilet, but he doesn’t resist the imperatives of the genre: He solves all three brothers’ predicaments, and none in a way that argues against the possibility of true love forever.
At first, the title of The Usual Suspects seems altogether fitting. Though this crime thriller features an exceptionally strong cast and a well-sustained tone, its initial portrait of some small-timers’ brutish underworld is unsurprising, almost routine. There are surprises to come, though. Less a whodunit than a whoisit, Suspects works a thoroughly entertaining—if not utterly convincing—variation on its tough-guy premise.
Since perplexity is director Bryan Singer and writer Christopher McQuarrie’s principal device, it’s best not to reveal too much. Still, there’s plenty of set-up before the narrative pulls the rug out from under itself.
Brought together by a seemingly chance encounter in a police holding cell, five New York hoods decide to collaborate on a heist. Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne) is a crooked ex-cop who claims he’s gone straight; Roger “Verbal” Kint (Kevin Spacey) is a mild-mannered con man with a bad leg; Michael McManus (Stephen Baldwin) and Fenster (Benicio Del Toro) are hotheaded longtime partners; Todd Hockney (Kevin Pollak) is a criminal technology specialist.
After they successfully rob a smuggler (Paul Bartel) being ferried by corrupt cops, the five felons discover that their partnership is not of their own making. Kobayashi (In the Name of‘s father, Pete Postlethwaite) appears to tell them that they’re all pawns in a strategy devised by his boss, legendary (or perhaps apocryphal) criminal genius Keyser Soze. If they don’t follow his instructions, Kobayashi coolly warns, their loved ones (including Keaton’s lawyer girlfriend, played by Suzy Amis) will be mutilated or killed.
Suspects actually begins just after the five undertake their mission for Soze, a bloody, explosive attack on a Hungarian freighter in San Pedro harbor. Amid a skein of flashbacks that explains how and why the hapless team got to Southern California, the film returns to the present, where Verbal is being questioned by customs agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri). It’s in Kujan’s borrowed office that the story unfolds, told by Verbal. Some aspects of the tale seem curious: Can the shadowy, supposedly Turkish mastermind Soze really exist as described? Why does Postlethwaite’s character have an Indian accent and a Japanese name? (Kobayashi’s dubious ethnicity offers a piquant, perhaps intentional contrast to the film’s otherwise usual lineup of Irish-, Italian-, and Latin-American cops and robbers.) Kujan and fellow cops Jeff Rabin (Clueless dad Dan Hedaya) and Jack Baer (Giancarlo Esposito) are convinced that they have the investigation under control.
Singer and McQuarrie—high-school friends from New Jersey who worked together on one previous feature, Public Access, 1993’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner—were clearly inspired by the tough, terse noirs of the ’40s and ’50s. The film’s principal players oblige that inspiration with icily intense performances; there are no star turns here, which suits the plot’s reticence about who the master schemer might be. Ultimately, however, the film more strongly evokes the early ’70s, when Hollywood used the conspiracy-thriller format to suggest corruptions that went to the heart of the American experience. Add a dollop of Alain Resnais (notably 1977’s Providence), and the result is stylish and engrossing from hard-boiled beginning to sly end. Suspects‘s final payoff is not profound, but it is a satisfyingly rich joke.
In the age of AIDS, the eponymous hero of Jeffrey is not a hero. A waiter, aspiring actor, and bland bystander in the ongoing carnival of gay New York, Jeffrey (Steven Weber) is spooked by the specter of potentially deadly sex and thus is not living life to the fullest. That’s a deficiency Jeffrey takes about 90 minutes of sometimes funny shtick—this film is stylistically indebted to Annie Hall—to rectify.
Jeffrey adapts to the screen, reportedly with very few changes, Paul Rudnick’s stage comedy, an off-Broadway success. (Rudnick wrote the screenplay, and the play’s director, Christopher Ashley, reprised his stage assignment.) Self-conscious and skit-ish, the film doesn’t always pull off its frequent shifts of location and (more important) mood. Though shot in often well-known New York sites, some of the locations look like nowheresville, and its downbeat moments (notably a gay-bashing scene) fail to convince. But the film’s quicksilver structure and keep-smiling message mean that its darker and dumber sequences never last long. A parody of a game show (hosted by Robert Klein), an encounter with a psychobabbling evangelist (Sigourney Weaver), or a soliloquy from a sex-addiction 12-step meeting is always just around the corner.
The film begins with its protagonist’s decision to abandon sex; soon after, at a gym, he meets the man of his dreams, hunky but HIV-positive Steve (Michael T. Weiss). He spends the rest of the film in Doris Day-like denial, running from Steve, while his pals Sterling (Patrick Stewart) and Darius (Bryan Batt) counsel him to go for it. “Hate AIDS, Jeffrey, not life,” advises the latter, articulating a moral that most viewers could have discerned for themselves a few minutes after the opening credits.
Casting Wings‘ Weber as Jeffrey and Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Stewart as his best friend was clearly calculated as a means to infiltrate suburban hetero sensibilities. Ironically, though, Sterling delivers one memorable harangue against straight-acting gay men, which is just what Jeffrey is, while it’s the mainstream bits that undermine the proceedings.
The film is liveliest at its most transgressive, as when Jeffrey is astounded to have an erotically explicit conference call with his parents, or when he’s equally astounded to be propositioned by a gay priest (Nathan Lane), who insists that sex and Broadway musicals are the principal proof that God exists. Though Rudnick and Ashley are clearly concerned about reaching the audience beyond Christopher Street—they’ve even included a scene where they imagine some straight viewers’ reaction to a gay kiss—Jeffrey is most cogent when it forgets its propagandistic intentions and just dishes the demimonde.