Papa McMullen was an oul-bollocks. He drank. He beat Mom. He died. Mom's eyes barely had dried from the funeral service when she announced her decision to pack off to Ireland to live with the man she had really loved for all those years. Her parting advice to her three sons: "Don't make the same mistake."
With a legacy like that to wrestle with, small wonder that the brothers McMullen grew into less-than-ideal love lives. Five years after Pop's death and Mom's skedaddling, the sibling trio reunite at the suburban Long Island home of their youth. Eldest brother (and surrogate father figure) Jack and his devoted wife, Molly, live there now; middle brother Barry and youngest brother Patrick have dropped in for a visit that becomes several months long.
Each of the brothers battles his romantic demons. Patrick (baby-faced unknown Mike McGlone in the film's best performance), the idealist in search of true love, dates a Jewish girl who wants him to convert from his staunch Catholicism and marry her. He puts her off until she finally breaks up with him, then he frets that the love of his life has slipped through his fingers. Middle brother Barry (writer-director Burns), the aspiring filmmaker, casually romances and discards women at will, disdaining commitment as contemptuously as he would an empty beer mug. But his latest girlfriend (Burns's real-life gal-pal, Maxine Bahns), Audry, may have the stuff to pierce his cynical shell. Jack (Jack Mulcahy) walks the line: Outwardly he appears to have the perfect marriage to sweet, cute Molly (Connie Britton), but beneath that domestic-bliss faaade beats a restless heart.
So the boys converge for brotherly bonding and bull sessions, dissecting each other's dilemmas with pointed wit and deep-rooted insight, the kind of insight that only people who have known you your whole life can possess. And that's pretty much the story line of The Brothers McMullen, the wonderfully witty how-low-budget-can-you-go debut film from this year's Sundance Kid, writer-director-co-star Edward Burns. (Judges at this year's Sundance Film Festival savored Burns's Irish Catholic stew enough to award it the Grand Jury Prize.) The filmmaker's story rings familiar: With the help of friends and family, an industrious young nobody with a dream scrapes together a film (usually long on piquant dialogue and quirky characterization, short on plot and production values), cracks the lineup at Sundance, and generates such a buzz that the Hollywood fat cats line up to throw money at him. The tradition traces back to Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies, and videotape in 1989, and continues through last year's Clerks and Spanking the Monkey.
Burns, a 27-year-old former Entertainment Tonight production assistant, added a few touching wrinkles to the basic rags-to-celluloid-riches scenario. His father, an ex-New York City cop, helped his son scrounge up the $16,000 financing. His mother kept the cast and crew in corned beef and cabbage while they shot the production in the Burns's Long Island home -- mostly on weekends -- over eight months. And Burns persuaded many of his ET coworkers to lend a hand, casting himself and his girlfriend in two major roles because he couldn't afford professional actors.
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The 27-year-old writer-director's story is almost as colorful and compelling as that of his three befuddled protagonists. Almost. But The Brothers McMullen is too fine a movie to merit second billing to its creator's real-life success, however heartwarming.
The brothers McMullen are a bright, loquacious, likable clan, a trio of clean-shaven, beer-drinking, Catholic guilt-ridden, regular guys who wore flannel shirts before grunge became all the rage and will continue to do so long after the music-fashion genre has run its course. Burns convincingly evokes their easy camaraderie and working-class suburban Long Island Irish Catholic milieu. The clever kvetching, pungent one-liners, and sharp observations on the nature of love and romance in the Nineties uttered against a New York backdrop guarantee Woody Allen comparisons. Burns's ability to submerge his audience into his characters' Irish-American New York environs rivals Allen's ability to transport viewers to Jewish Manhattan. And then there's guilt; Burns understands the Catholic version every bit as intimately as Allen does the Jewish. They both use the emotion to maximum comic and dramatic effect.
Of course nowadays it seems as though every young filmmaker who writes romantic comedies with funny-quirky dialogue -- Miami Rhapsody's David Frankel, for example -- must measure up to the Woodman standard the way folksingers emerging in the Seventies had to deal with the "new Dylan" tag. Despite his film's raw look and uneven acting -- both of which are no doubt attributable in part or in full to budgetary constraints -- Burns merits the praise the Woody comparison inherently bestows. The Brothers McMullen tackles the big issues of love, family, and marriage with an irresistibly fresh, engaging vigor. Don't sell this pot of gold short; there's far more to Edward Burns's success than the luck o' the Irish.