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'Brothers' pushes a lot of emotional buttons

Special Photo: Lionsgate. Tobey Maguire, left, and Jake Gyllenhaal star in "Brothers."

Special Photo: Lionsgate. Tobey Maguire, left, and Jake Gyllenhaal star in "Brothers."

Brothers (R)

2 stars out of 4

This year, after a half-decade's worth of politically motivated, flat-lining creative disasters, directors Kathryn Bigelow ("The Hurt Locker") and Oren Moverman ("The Messenger") proved that it was possible to make thought-provoking American movies about the two current U.S. wars.

In 2004, Danish director Susanne Bier also achieved greatness with the same subject matter in "Brodre" which has now been remade as "Brothers." To screenwriter David Benioff and director Jim Sheridan's credit, there is no political posturing going on here, although this is clearly an anti-war film. It is bursting at the seams with good intentions, and if judged solely on intent, it would warrant a four-star rating.

Never known for his light touch, Sheridan ("In the Name of the Father," "My Left Foot") doesn't inform or provoke here as much as he goes for blunt-force emotional trauma. There is no nuance or poetry; it's all handled with the subtly and finesse of an errant jack hammer.

Appearing as the title characters are Tobey Maguire (as Sam) and Jake Gyllenhaal (as Tommy). The movie opens with good brother Sam picking up the ne'er-do-well Tommy, who is being released from prison after serving a stint for armed robbery. Sam is a captain in the Army and is about to start his fourth tour of duty in Afghanistan. Tommy is ready to continue drinking heavily and reminding his Vietnam veteran father Hank (Sam Shepard) that he is a total loser.

Sam's perpetually-suffering wife Grace (Natalie Portman) shares Hank's opinion of Tommy and tolerates his presence only for Sam's sake. Her attitude toward Tommy changes radically after receiving news of Sam's apparent demise in battle.

Expunging a huge backlog of guilt while seeking redemption, Tommy doesn't try to replace Sam but rather to act as a spiritual caretaker for Grace and a surrogate father to her two daughters (Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare, both impressive). While all of this is taking place, Sam and another soldier are being tortured in every way imaginable by the Taliban and the protracted imprisonment takes its toll. Sam returns home a virtual zombie but is clearly aware of Tommy's new role in the family and is none too pleased.

With his blue, dinner plate-sized eyes, military buzz cut and gaunt appearance, Maguire's Sam is the embodiment of Christopher Walken's character in "The Deer Hunter." Now unable to handle life as a civilian, Sam wants to return to the war ASAP and isn't beyond wreaking a bunch of havoc before he does.

It is ironic and more than a little eerie that the film is being released just three days after President Barack Obama's speech to the nation outlining his plans to both win the war and get out of Afghanistan. The scenes featuring the Taliban are a stark reminder that the U.S. and its allies are waging war against people who care little for life and are wholly prepared to sacrifice themselves and destroy any and everything in their path to defend their ideals and homeland. If members of the president's own party wanted something to counter this new battle plan, everything they need can be found within the frames of Sheridan's movie.

In addition to offering too much melodrama and too little hope, "Brothers" is simply not a very good movie. While equally as downbeat, both "The Hurt Locker" and "The Messenger" gave us something we hadn't seen before and did so in original ways. "Brothers" pushes a lot of emotional buttons but fails on almost every level to enlighten, educate or genuinely move us. (Lionsgate)