Brothers McMullen: Ed Burns’ Sundance Fest Winning Comedy

Sundance Film Fest 1995 (Dramatic Competition)–As in Hal Hartley’s films, working-class Long Island also features prominently in the films of Ed Burns.

Surprisingly, Burns is one of the few filmmakers to explore the Irish-American Catholic experience. “It would have seemed so natural for people to do stories about Irish-Americans, and I don’t know why this hasn’t happened,” he says. “I grew up on Scorsese and Coppola, and we’ve had all those films about the Italian American experience. You have Woody Allen, Barry Levinson and Neil Simon and plenty of works about the Jewish experience. You have the African-Americans and Hispanics. But not Irish.”

A crowd-pleaser that raised eyebrows when awarded Sundance’s top prize, The Brothers McMullen is an old-fashioned, disarmingly straightforward comedy in its disregard for trendiness. Desperate for the Woody Allen touch, Burns pays tribute to Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Hannah and Her Sisters–his movie could be called Barry and His Brothers. In a film that’s an outgrowth of his personal life, Burns paints the Irish-American brothers as lovingly complicated, utterly confused about women.

Thematically conventional, Brothers McMullen is a test case for films that are indie in budget and production mode, but not in spirit or style. Modest in scale, the film was shot at Burns parents home in Valley Stream, mostly on weekends. Its initial cost, an incongruously low $25,000, was raised by family friends and relatives. Early cuts of the film were rejected by all the major festivals except Sundance, then new distributor on the block, Fox Searchlight Pictures, invested $500,000 in postproduction of what became its first theatrical release.

For a 27-year-old tyro, Burns shows sharp commercial instincts for involving the audience in the amorous adventures of brothers who struggle with vagaries of the heart and familial commitment. But it’s the sprightly profane dialogue, the “dirty” talk used by the brothers to needle each other that gives the movie a modern feel and winsome drive, if not exactly edge. It’s this “new” element, the blasphemous banter that keeps the picture from getting stale.

Battles with faith, love and masculinity define the lives of three siblings temporarily living under the same roof. Though they don’t go to church, they are tortured by their Catholicism–their need to reconcile their love lives to their religion. With their abusive father dead, and their mother gone to Ireland to rejoin an old flame, they have only each other to turn to as they puzzle out their relationship with women.

Utterly different, the brothers are united by a shared refusal to commit, a belief that “a real guy with a real life” is frightening. This even applies to eldest Jack (Jack Mulcahy), the only brother with a wife and steady job (a school coach); whenever wife Molly (Connie Britton) starts talking about children, Jack gets nervous.

Burns plays the middle brother, Barry–hard-drinking, tough-talking, suspicious of women yet yearning for love. An affable rogue, teasingly labeled Mr. Hotshot Noncommittal, Barry is a would-be screenwriter with a wicked tongue and firm belief that no one should ever get married. He reasons: “Your wife is the last woman you’ll see completely naked and be allowed to touch. It’s something to think about.” Proud of never having been in love, he considers himself an expert in the art of breaking up, dispensing the worst romantic advice possible to his equally mixed-up siblings.

The devout commitment of youngest brother Patrick (Mike McGlone) makes him the family’s moral center. Jokingly called “altar boy,” it’s to him that the other two come when worried about what “a big-time sin” is. Patrick is involved with a Jewish girl, Susan (Shari Albert), who seriously contemplates marriage, but he’s still preoccupied with finding his “true soul mate.” Lack of money forces Patrick and Barry back into their old rooms in what’s now Jack’s house, and that change brings new women into their lives.

Patrick starts to notice Leslie (Jennifer Jostyn), a neighborhood girl he admired in high school, and Barry, on a desperate apartment hunting in Manhattan, finds himself outsmarted by Audrey (Maxine Bahns), a self-reliant actress who resists his charms.