New takes on older foreign films

On Film

Remaking foreign films can be tricky, but the directors of 'Brothers' and 'Everybody's Fine' are making new inroads on old stories

  • Natalie Portman (as Grace Cahill), left, Tobey Maguire (as Sam Cahill), Bailee Madison (as Isabelle Cahill) and Taylor Geare (as Maggie Cahill) star in "Brothers."
Natalie Portman (as Grace Cahill), left, Tobey Maguire (as… (Lorey Sebastian )
December 04, 2009|By Michael Sragow |

Big-star American remakes of foreign-language films have been with us since 1938. That's when Charles Boyer tore up the box office as the glamorous outlaw of Algiers' Casbah, Pepe le Moko, in "Algiers" - just a year after Jean Gabin originated the role in "Pepe le Moko." And American movies have taken foreign screenplays and transposed them to native locations at least since Henry Fonda, in 1947, took on another Jean Gabin role as the doomed factory worker in "The Long Night," from the French "Le Jour Se Leve."

But the art of cross-cultural adaptation gets an unprecedented double test today, with Robert De Niro starring in Kirk Jones' "Everybody's Fine," taken from Guiseppe Tornatore's 1990 "Stanno tutti bene" (which starred Marcello Mastroianni), and Tobey Maguire and Natalie Portman starring in Jim Sheridan's "Brothers," taken from Susanne Bier's 2004 "Brodre" (which starred Connie Nielsen).

Why would an internationally acclaimed filmmaker like Sheridan ("In America") and a burgeoning director like Kirk Jones ("Nanny McPhee") risk the critical brickbats that remakes almost always attract? In interviews, these directors make a strong case for artists having the right to revisit plots and characters in their own verbal and visual idioms. I think Sheridan succeeds marvelously in his picture, while Jones starts strong and falters. But both talk a good game.

Sheridan has a simple explanation for why he wanted to remake "Brodre" as "Brothers": "All I can say is I love the original." So he greets the news that his version may be better than the original with bemusement. "The weird thing," he says, "is that with so many people writing on the Internet, they have to prove they know something - so they're always talking about the original, the original, and it gets kind of irritating. Doing a remake is sort of a Catch-22 anyway. ... But I think ours does have some good things in it."

In the Scandinavian director's archetypal set-up in "Brodre" for an extreme case of post-traumatic stress disorder, a heroic Danish soldier returns home only after Afghan thugs compel him to commit an unspeakable act. His secret guilt unnerves and exhausts him. He's paranoid about the charged friendship that sprung up between his wife and his black-sheep brother when they thought he was dead. His own small daughters grow to prefer the company of their uncle.

Happily, in "Brothers," Sheridan and American screenwriter David Benioff instinctively enrich Bier's stark characters scene by scene. The relationship between the straight-arrow brother (Maguire) and the bad apple ( Jake Gyllenhaal) is more believable from the outset. Even when the soldier picks up his brother from prison, where he has finished a sentence for a bank robbery, the two share a rapport that cushions any antagonism. "The original had them fight in the first scene," says Sheridan. "I asked myself, 'If I do that, where do I go next?' I just tried to play the fighting down and play up how much they liked each other."

In Sheridan's version, they're the sons of a Vietnam veteran who took out his own pain on his family, a circumstance that bonds them and makes sense of their divergent life choices. "The time bomb underneath doing any remake," says Sheridan, "is that the people who made the first one may end up hating it. So I called Anders Thomas Jensen [who co-wrote Bier's movie] and told him I wanted to make the father a military guy. ... And he said, 'That's a great idea.' "

With Sheridan prodding Sam Shepard into a near-great performance as the father, "You see he's hurting from the beginning. He's got some of the post-traumatic stress himself. And he does reach out a bit to his sons." Sheridan and Benioff decided to change the father's wife ( Mare Winningham) into the boys' stepmother. "The mother never had much of a role in the first one," Sheridan continues. "I decided to mask that by making her a stepmother." And this way she gets to tell the ex-con that his brother will soon be with his mom.

The sum of all these changes is to make "Brothers" a movie with a galvanizing mass character: a military clan in all its glory, hardship and resilience. It features a never-better Maguire as its rock - and, later, its volcanic core. "I think all the changes come down to the movie's substructure having a different DNA. Susanne was making a woman's movie, and at the center was the wife, the mother, in the middle of a kind of romantic triangle involving a dangerous love. I'm about making the family get back together. Mine is more male, in a way." Yet Natalie Portman proves far stronger in Sheridan's film than Connie Nielsen is in Bier's. Portman is self-aware and conflicted, Nielsen oddly flirty, even flighty.

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