Seldom Scene
Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

The Brothers McMullen (1995)

How much money does it take to make a really good movie these days? James Cameron’s new epic, Titanic, has a budget somewhere around 180 million dollars.

It’ll probably turn out okay.

The last time I looked, the average budget for a major studio film was 50 million dollars. That was about a year ago, so I’m probably off by ten or twenty million.

You’d think these figures might be a little intimidating for a first-time director. Not the kind of thing you can write home about: “Hi, mom! Hi, dad! I need 40 million to make this movie I’ve been dreaming about for the last five years. How much did your last garage sale pull in? Could you sell the dog?”

No need to despair. Two years ago, a young man named Edward Bums wrote & directed one of the best films of the year. It was good enough to win the Grand Jury Prize at Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival, and held its own in nationwide release. With The Brothers McMullen, Bums probably inspired a whole new generation of filmmakers. No revolution in content or technique, but a dazzling revelation of how much money one doesn’t need. The Brothers McMullen cost just over $24,000. No, I didn’t leave off any zeroes. Made on weekends with the help of a lot of very talented friends, Bums demonstrated that less is more.

Is there anything about the look of The Brothers McMullen (grainy shots? crude hand-held camera techniques? one-room sets?) to distinguish it from movies that shelled out the extra 49, 976,000 bucks? No. Admittedly there are no shots of the entire House of Commons being sucked into an alien mothership, or Vancouver sliding into the Strait of Georgia, or Brian Mulroney morphing into Dennis Rodman, but who needs all that stuff when you’ve got three Irish-Catholic brothers, a terrific supporting cast, and great dialogue.

Jack (Jack Mulcahy) is thirty-three, lives on Long Island, coaches high school basketball, and is very happily married to a beautiful, hard-working English teacher named Molly (Connie Britton). Brother number two, Barry (Edward Bums), is a writer and a veteran bachelor (“Mr. Hot-Shot Non-Committal”) whose idea of a long-standing relationship with a woman is considerably shorter than the warranty on most toasters. Youngest brother Patrick (Mike McGlone) is the practicing Catholic of the family. At one point, Jack calls him “Mr. Ten Commandments.”  Although his older brothers, in moments of crisis, bounce their confusion off him as they might off a benign Father Confessor, Patrick has his own problems. He’s just discovered that he’s got to find himself a life after college, and is very unplatonically involved with a Jewish girl (Shari Albert) whose father is wealthy enough to guarantee Patrick’s future as well as his daughter’s. All three brothers are haunted by memories of their recently-deceased paterfamilias (Barry comments, over supper: “Speaking of our favorite, wife-beating, child-abusing alcoholic…I went down to the grave this morning and….I’m happy to report he’s still dead.”), and of their mother who immediately after her husband’s funeral had packed her bags and flown to Ireland to join the true love she’d forsaken 35 years earlier to fulfill what she saw, at that time, to be her duty-bound role as a proper Catholic housewife.

Both Barry and Patrick wind up staying with Jack and Molly, who live in their parents’ old home. When the specters of both True Love and True Lust rear their heads, all three brothers are faced with the choice of either charting new lives or reaffirming their old ones (“Are you ready to spend the rest of your life having sex with this one woman? She’ll be the last woman that you get to see naked and be allowed to touch. That’s something to think about.”) The secret to the success of The Brothers McMullen is that, faced with their choices, the brothers do something which is almost unheard of in major motion pictures nowadays—they talk honestly to one another about the decisions they’re making. These are roads we’ve all been down. Characters in 100-million-dollar movies don’t make decisions about their lives. They don’t have time between explosions or between gags. It’s pretty much left up to independent filmmakers like Bums or Wayne Wang {Smoke) to slow everything down enough to make us care about what the characters say, why they say it, and where it’ll take them.

And don’t get me wrong. Pointing out that Bums slowed things down enough to let the characters listen to one another is not to say the film itself seems slow. There’s intelligence and humor here, not pretention. Credit Bums’ screenplay (learn why man is like a banana), and his amazing cast of unknown actors. This will not be the last we’ve heard from them. Credit, too, Seamus Eagan’s gentle Celtic score. The whole picture seems to dance along to his fiddle and pipes. A funny thing, but even in American movies Canadian musicians seem to be getting in the last word these days. The Brothers McMullen closes with Sarah McLachlan’s gorgeous “I Will Remember You,” co-written with Eagan.


Looking Back & Second Thoughts

I had a bit of trepidation about watching The Brothers McMullen some 20 years after I’d first reviewed it.  I had no memory of the film whatsoever, and was prepared for a what-did-I-ever-see-in-that-movie reaction.  Maybe it was just a flash in the pan.  Maybe the fact that I didn’t remember anything was simply my subconscious mind signalling two thumbs down.

I needn’t have worried.  It’s amazing how far $24,000 and talent could take you in the film industry in 1995.  This is Woody Allen without a budget, and with Irish Catholic guilt filling in for Jewish neuroses.  We’re still in New York, but in the boroughs rather than mid-town Manhattan.  There’s not a Bergman joke in sight.  The Brothers McMullen is an old-fashioned film that relies on dialogue and straightforward character development, rather than knowing irony or flash.  When the cost of even an animated film can now approach $200 million, it doesn’t hurt to dial things back to a more human level every now and then.

Nothing that I’ve learned to love and relationships over the past 20 years has made the brothers’ fumblings with wives & lovers ring false.  If anything, I’ve seen the film’s scenarios play out in real life in ways far stranger than those depicted here.  There’s nothing more unfathomable & unpredictable than the human heart, for good and ill.  I think my favorite scene in The Brothers McMullen is the one at the very beginning, where, right after Barry’s father dies, his mother calmly tells him she’s putting 35 years of an abusive marriage completely behind her and going off to Ireland to be with the man she should have married when she was young.  That’s resilience.  Sometimes hearts bend but do not break.  There’s hope for all of us.

This was Edward Burns’ first film.  He’s had a fine career since, both as an actor and as a director.  First-timers Shari Albert, Maxine Bahns, Connie Britton, and Michael McGlone have also all gone on to successful acting careers, all of them going strong as I write this 24 years later.  Seamus Eagan, who provided Brothers lovely, lilting Irish soundtrack, was yet another first-timer who has continued to work in film and as an independent musician.  With all this nascent talent, no wonder Brothers took the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.

You’ll notice my Bigger Picture section above is a little thin this time around.  The romance/romantic comedy genres make up a sadly deficient part of my movie-watching experience.  If I had to send in a new resume for a job as a film critic, I’d need to fake that bit.  Now that I’ve been reminded of what I’m missing, however, I hopefully still have time to expand my horizons.  I’m still stuck back in the Thirties with It Happened One Night, Bringing Up Baby, and His Girl Friday.  Not a bad place to be, but I know there’s more.

Movie Information

Genre: Drama | Romantic Comedy
Director: Edward Burns
Actors: Edward Burns, Shari Albert, Maxine Bahns, Connie Britton, Michael McGlone, Jack Mulcahey, Elizabeth McKay, Jennifer Jostyn
Year: 1995
Original Review: May, 1997



Érudit is a Québec-based website that provides free on-line access to publications in the Social Sciences and Humanities.  One of the publications offered is the excellent Ciné-Bulles magazine, described on the website as:

“Published by the Association des cinémas parallèles du Québec since 1982, this dynamic journal, which covers current events, leads moviegoers on the various paths of national and international cinematography. In its pages, one can find interviews with directors, event, film and book reviews and editorials that comment on important questions pertaining to this art form.”                                                                      

Back issues are available from 1982 until the current date.  As of February 2019, full free access is granted to all issues prior to 2016.  All articles are in French.

A Harsh, But Efficient, Form Rejection Letter for Silent Film Screenwriters

From Rebecca Onion’s introduction:

Screenwriters sending scripts to Essanay Studios, a Chicago company that produced silent films between 1907 and 1917, received this form rejection letter in response to their submissions. Here Essanay identified several common problems with scripts; some (“Too difficult to produce”) were probably more helpful to aspiring writers than others (“Not interesting”).

One of the most interesting aspects of this unique document is how it indicates censorship trends in the early years of silent film.  Ms. Onion’s accompanying article also links to a detailed timeline of film censorship in the U.S.

Do Hitchcock and The Girl Reveal the Horrible Truth about Hitch?

A 2013 article from The Guardian, written by Alex von Tunzelman, that has become even more relevant with all of the recent, high-profile sexual harassment cases.  Where and how do we draw the lines between the artist as a person and the works he/she creates?  From the by-line:  “Two new biopics of the master of suspense depict him as a bully who abused his leading ladies. But where does the truth lie?”

Films Worth Talking About:

Casino, Waterworld, Underground, Batman Forever, The Brothers McMullen, Shanghai Triad, Babe, Mallrats, Braveheart, Rob Roy, Land and Freedom, La Haine (Hate), Leaving Las Vegas, The Usual Suspects, Clueless, Goldeneye, Die Hard With a Vengeance, Before Sunrise, The Horseman on the Roof, Mighty Aphrodite, To Die For, Smoke, When Night is Falling

The Bigger Picture

FilmsCyrano de Bergerac (1990), The Seven Year Itch, When Night is Falling

Music:  Richard and Linda Thompson, Pour Down Like Silver; Sarah McLachlan, Solace & Surfacing

Books:  Alan Ackybourn, The Norman Conquests; Leonard Cohen, The Favourite Game

The Word on the Street

The film is dominated by perceptive, sensitive and realistic dialogue throughout. The dilemmas of these three brothers are instantly recognisable to anyone in their twenties or thirties, their inner conflicts easy to identify with. This film is beautifully acted, and particularly likeable is Mike McGlone as the youngest brother who desperately tries to hold on to what he believes is his genuine Catholic conviction whilst searching for ‘true love’. Burns’ script is witty, warm, honest and wonderfully unpretentious. Burns himself turns in a great performance of the ever-maligned man who is ‘afraid of commitment’, yet somehow manages to remain intensely appealing and prevents his character from appearing to be a cliché. A rare gem among contemporary movies – one which is fuelled by words and not actions. Refreshing.  [A Bania]

There’s a ton of things wrong with this film. The acting is wooden at best. The script has holes all through it. And worst of all, the film itself looks like it was developed at a Photomat! But there’s something about this film that has heart. There’s something about this film’s performances that has heart. It’s as if each actor involved really believed in the project and wasn’t just “phoning it in”. I don’t think that Ed Burns will ever be able to recreate the magic of this film….But he’s still one up on 99% of Hollywood. This is a great movie because it works without all the polish that we’re all so used to in American cinema.  [909]

First time i saw this 10 years ago, i thought it was pretty good. Its been on cable more lately and found myself watching it a couple more times,and its grown on me more. Its funny at times. Also very serious at others. As sorta a non practicing Irish Catholic myself, It brought home allot of situations i can relate to. Its also sorta a NY type comedy, with the language and City backgrounds. Covers allot of relationship topics. I sorta call this a chick flick for guys. None of that stupid comedy/phony romance type movie you often see nowadays. But more real life situation. Little things, like the fight Burns has with his brother over drinking a beer in the morning. Now that’s the way it is in real life.  [pk-2]

I came from the same area where Ed Burns grew up and I recognized the house and the street plus the church shown in the movie. The Long Island Rail Road station was Gibson. It brought back a lot of good memories. The movie captured much of the essence of the times and the neighborhood. I loved it. The characters seemed to be just like the people living there. I know many of the actors were from the area though I did not know them. His father being a NYPD Sergeant and his Mom working in the JFK Airport were indicative of many of the people living in this area. The Irish factor was also a sign of the area. My father was also Irish and worked as a Policeman in the same town where the film was shot. Great work. I am so appreciative of the movie.  [falongi]

I have no idea why this movie was ever made. It’s truly horrible. I mean what was the point? Lapsed Catholics are troubled people? None of the male characters is the least bit interesting or sympathetic. They are all total zeros. Given that the three brothers are absolute jerks, the contrived, blissful happy ending which is completely predictable is not in the least bit warranted in any of the three couples lives. The profanity is on a par with the number of beers consumed. I think I should have had a few before sitting down to this. The wife of the eldest brother who is married is about the only interesting character in the movie. She should apply for sainthood for sticking with a cheating husband. As far as I am concerned this is just more Catholic bashing from that Hollywood can not get enough of. Don’t spend a minute watching this dreadful film.  [mrvirgo]