The Brothers McMullen is filled with moments of brilliant filmmaking. More than enough. It just doesn’t finish off on one of them. The film needs to go out as strongly as it starts and it comes up short. Burns’s filmmaking is organic (undoubtedly a result of a long filming and imaginative editing) and the ending is far too perfunctory.
Some of the problem with the ending is Burns’s decision to give himself the least interesting role in the film. Even Jack Mulcahy, whose infidelity arc (the three brothers–Burns, Mulcahy and Mike McGlone each have separate crises, which–very nicely–never come together) is somewhat awkward as its mostly an internalized crisis, has more to do than Burns.
Burns’s arc (with Maxine Bahns as his love interest) is basically a romantic comedy with the slapstick removed. It’s very pretty, but it lacks a certain amount of emotional weight. Instead of turning himself into the protagonist–though he allows himself the showiest monologue–Burns gives that role to McGlone. With a nauseating amount of Irish Catholic guilt, the character shouldn’t even be sympathetic, but Burns’s script takes the character on a significant personal journey, all beautifully essayed by McGlone.
His two romantic interests–Shari Albert and Jennifer Jostyn–are both excellent. All of the performances in the film (Connie Britton probably gives the best) are good, though Burns’s direction occasionally leads to unsure moments.
The direction, while consistently excellent, falters whenever there’s a dramatic one shot.
But those quibbles are minor.