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‘The Brothers McMullen’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 18, 1995

"THE BROTHERS McMullen" knocks you down with a simple one-two formula that seems beyond the ken of so many heavy-hitting Hollywood projects. It's called "character and story." Written and directed on the proverbial shoestring by 27-year-old Edward Burns, the film (which was shot for $25,000) has a disarming, funny simplicity that's downright lyrical. Dollar for dollar, this Sundance Film Festival winner is one of the most enjoyable experiences of the year.

Set in a middle-class Irish-Catholic neighborhood in Long Island, "McMullen" is about a world where the only area in which people can take moral, decisive action is in their personal relationships. In this respect, the brothers of the title—played with great vitality by Jack Mulcahy, Mike McGlone and filmmaker Burns—have their work cut out for them.

Rock-solid, oldest sibling Mulcahy is so well-ensconced in marriage, he's beginning to feel claustrophobic. When his wife (Connie Britton) practically forces him to think babies and a slinky little temptress coos seductively in his ear, his strength of character begins to buckle.

Middle brother Burns (who comes across as a sort of likable Billy Baldwin) attracts women effortlessly. But as soon as an affair gets going (to the second date, for instance), he ducks out, terrified about commitment. As for McGlone, the baby of the family, he's wrestling with a Jewish girlfriend (Shari Albert), who wants him to convert, marry her and work for her father.

There are sweet side developments. When Burns bumps into a model (Maxine Bahns) who beats him out for the New York apartment he wants to rent, we sense this could be the relationship that catches him. McGlone, who is appalled at his older brother's dalliance, and is torn about his girlfriend, suddenly realizes that a longtime friend (Jennifer Jostyn) may just be the one to shack up with.

It's not the outcome of these romantic entanglements that count. It's the seriocomic behavior and conversations along the way. In one scene, Burns describes for McGlone the gruesome future he can expect from marriage, while he casually slices a banana over his cereal. The meaning of the rapidly dwindling fruit is hilariously unambiguous.

The movie isn't flashy or slick. In fact in places, it feels a little creaky. But the performances and story, burnished with Burns's great sense of humor, transcend such minor flaws. Had "McMullen" been subjected to a hypothetical story-development conference at a Hollywood studio, the entertainment experts probably would have concluded the movie wasn't "big" enough. Those quiet, single little resolutions experienced by the brothers would have been among the first things to go. So we can thank Burns—an erstwhile production assistant for the "Entertainment Tonight" show, who dreamt up a simple premise and made his own movie with the help of a production crew and actors willing to defer payment—and his mom—who made corned beef and cabbage for everyone. Not that this misty-eyed, behind-the-scenes sentiment makes the difference. "McMullen" stands as its own creation, a small wonder to be reckoned with by the biggest of them. — Desson Howe

THE BROTHERS MCMULLEN (R) — Contains sexual situations and profanity.

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