Anyone fond of Danish director Susanne Bier’s 2004 original should steer clear of this ill-advised though faithful remake by Jim Sheridan. (His emotionally manipulative In America seems like the epitome of sincerity in comparison.) Natalie Portman attempts the impossible: filling the shoes of Connie Nielsen, who was so real, so heartbreaking, and who grounded a film ostensibly titled after two men (female director, anyone?). But even if Portman did look old enough to be the mother of two, chances are she’d still end up a near-blank working with David Benioff’s script.
This is the stuff of heavy-duty domestic drama, in the vein of the “he died at war—or did he?” films like Tomorrow Is Forever, so popular in the Forties. Here, Portman’s goody-goody husband (Tobey Maguire) is shipped off to Afghanistan and soon reported as dead, leaving her to become better acquainted with his fresh-out-of-jail bad-boy brother (Jake Gyllenhaal). He, of course, is much more interesting—both to her and her children.
Gyllenhaal is hardly the most expressive actor, but he gives an almost respectable performance compared to Maguire, who, like Portman, doesn’t seem to age—and who really needs to wipe that smirk off his face. The presence of Sam Shepard and Mare Winningham, as the brothers’ dad and stepmom, and new it-girl Carey Mulligan as a soldier’s widow, add some clout, but not nearly enough.