Ed Burns was working as little more than a "gofer" for Entertainment Tonight when he decided to write, produce, and direct his own movie. He had to ask all the actors to work for free (with only the hope that they might one day get paid), had to shoot on 16mm film and often use left-over film stock from his student filmmaking days, and even use his own childhood home as the primary location for scenes – sneaking outdoor shots here and there (sans permits) where he could get them. The result is 1995's 'The Brothers McMullen,' a movie that, considering its low-budget roots and production history, is probably more entertaining than it has any right to be.
The film tells the story of three Irish Catholic brothers who, due to some bad luck in two of the brothers' lives, wind up living together in the home of the oldest brother. The oldest sibling is Jack (Jack Mulcahy) who seems to have the perfect life and the perfect wife (Connie Britton, in her first movie role) but is thinking about having an affair with a friend when his wife starts pressuring him about starting a family. Another brother, Patrick (Mike McGlone), is the most devout Catholic of the three brothers and finds himself engaged to a Jewish woman who not only becomes pregnant but wants to get an abortion – giving Patrick a crisis of conscience about his religious beliefs. Finally, there's Barry – played by Ed Burns himself – who is the least committal when it comes to romantic relationships and then finds himself falling in love for the first time in his life.
What I liked most about the movie is that it doesn't guide the viewer into particular judgments about any one of the brothers. Is Jack a bad guy for wanting to cheat on his wife, or is he just falling into the temptation that every marriage eventually faces? Is Patrick too devout to his Catholic background, or should we applaud him for his moral beliefs? Is Barry afraid to fall in love, or is he just being realistic about his ability to juggle his life aspirations along with a serious relationship?
My complaints about the movie are small, but important… and they stem from the fact that the women in the movie aren't written as equally strong as the men. The woman wanting to have an affair with Jack seems to want to have an affair with him for no other reason than to have sex with a married man, and serves no other purpose in the story. Jack's wife is also very stereotypically written, and it's only Connie Britton's acting ability that gives her character a little more than what's in the script. The other women in the movie aren't very three dimensional either, with all of them only seeming to service wherever the screenplay wants to take the three brothers.
Despite its low-budget roots, 'The Brothers McMullen' entertains due to the fact of how strongly and well-rounded the characters have been written by Burns. So while both the production values and many of the actors themselves give a very "student film" feel to the movie, viewers will feel themselves pulled in by the moral questions each brother faces during the course of the story. Few feature films have characters that contemplate actions and make decisions based on their religious upbringing, and that may be one of the main reasons 'The Brothers McMullen' found an audience in 1995 (it was winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival) and one of the reasons it still holds up today.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
Another release in Fox's Filmmakers Signature Series, 'The Brothers McMullen' arrives on Blu-ray in a recyclable Blu-ray case with a slipcover. The movie is on a single, Region A encoded 50GB dual-layer disc, and houses a 28-page booklet that details the making of the film.
When judging the quality of the transfer here, one needs to keep in mind the source material. As noted at the outset of this review, Burns shot the entire movie on 16mm using whatever film stock he could find/had available. He also only used whatever natural lighting he had. As a result, some scenes are very grainy and dark, while others are bright and colorful. The movie has always looked this way, and the Blu-ray transfer does its best to bring that look to viewers today. All that said, we're basically getting a good transfer of a bad-looking film, but one that is still an improvement over previous home video releases.
Instead of trying to give us a new fancy audio mix, Fox does the smart thing here and just gives us a solid English mono DTS-HD track. While that does mean everything's coming from one's center channel, dialogue is clear and at proper levels throughout the movie. Again, an attempt to give us the closest to the theatrical presentation as possible without glossing things up for the Blu-ray release. Spanish and French mono tracks are also available.
This is the same commentary track that appeared on the prior Blu-ray (as well as the DVD) release of the movie, but it's easily the best bonus feature on this disc – as Burns gives insight into how he shot the movie on a shoestring budget. Entertaining for the layperson and informative for those aspiring filmmakers out there, this is one of those commentary tracks that you listen to and feel like you've had a few film school courses after you're done.
This Blu-ray release marked my first-ever viewing of 'The Brothers McMullen,' and while I found myself enjoying the film more than I thought I would, this release is really only going to appeal to huge fans of the movie and/or of Ed Burns. For the rest out there, this falls firmly into the rental-only realm…meaning it's worth seeing, but probably not something you're going to want to add to your permanent home library.