[Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best made it’s theatrical debut on the East Coast last week and it lands in selected West Coast theaters today. You can find a list of theaters here]
Somewhere along the line, young filmmakers figured out if they make films that fit certain templates, they’ll have a leg up in garnering valuable film festival attention which might lead to a distribution deal. Consequently, there are seemingly a dozen films every year about tousle-haired mopesters with girl trouble who all listen to the same sensitive, lo-fi, emo-twinkle soundtracks. A few of them make it out of the festival ghetto each year which only encourages more the next year after that. I have to admit, when I first read the synopsis for Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best, I thought “Uh oh. Here we go again. Here’s another dainty Garden State clone I’m going to want to run over with a dump truck.” It turns out though that writer/director/star Ryan O’Nan’s feature directorial debut is much better than most of the movies it’ll inevitably be compared to and, after a few minutes of initial skeptics where I may literally have had my arms crossed in a defensive posture, it quickly won me over.
Right away, O’Nan’s character Alex is more likable than a lot of the dopes who tend to populate these films. He’s lost his girl, he’s lost his band and he hates his soulless for-pay job, but he still clings tenuously to the dream of being a musician which for him currently consists of dressing up in a costume once a week and singing folky songs about nihilism to little kids. Less mopey and more in a state of shock, O’Nan never tries to make Alex’s downward spiral heroic. In fact he mines it for quite a bit of comedy and it’s the comedy that really makes Brooklyn Brothers sing, especially in the early going where Alex is still kind of trying to find his equilibrium.
Eventually, Alex hooks up with (the probably insane) Jim, who plays music on assorted Fisher Price child’s instruments and who also not surprisingly has difficulty keeping a band together. Jim is well-played by Michael Weston who has carved out a niche for himself over the years playing unpredictable nut jobs. Fans of HBO’s Six Feet Under will remember him as the psycho crack-head who kidnapped and beat the shit out of David and Weston brings a similar wild-card menace to Jim.
Less out of logic and more out of desperation after losing his paying job and even getting fired from the costume gig, Alex agrees to travel across the country with Jim to play in a series of prearranged gigs as The Brooklyn Brothers. The ultimate destination is a battle of the bands in Los Angeles. It’s a mission probably doomed to failure, but along the way Alex forms an honest musical bond with Jim and he even meets a pretty girl along the way.
Besides the fact that it was frequently very funny and I never once wanted to punch it in the face, one thing that separates Brooklyn Brothers from a film like Garden State is that the music isn’t just some hipster mix-tape cobbled together to fill an emotional void in the script. O’Nan actually wrote the songs and performs them with his co-star Michael Weston. Musically, it’s not dissimilar to the sounds of Garden State, in fact one of the characters in the film describes the band as “kind of a Shins meets Sesame Street sort of thing” and that’s pretty accurate, but it works better and feels more honest because it’s home grown. And the music is not half bad if you go for this kind of thing. In fact, Rhino Records thought enough of it following the film’s Toronto International Film Festival premiere to sign the duo to a record contract. I’m not sure how well the music stands up repeat listens, but in the context of the film it all works really well.
Being a road trip movie, Brooklyn Brothers is of course ultimately about Alex discovering himself, or at least more clearly defining for himself what it is he wants to do with his life. It’s also about the simple, pure joys of creating music and in making people happy with that music. It’s a basic, timeless message wrapped in an entertaining if not entirely unpredictable package.
I don’t know how O’Nan sees his future, whether it’s as an actor, writer, director, musician or some combination of the four, but he shows a lot of promise in all of them. The humor which is the film’s biggest strength has to be written, but then it also has to be directed and performed in order for it to translate on the screen. Not all of O’Nan’s bits work, but enough do to keep the film rolling along to its basically sweet conclusion. If nothing else, Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best is a nice reminder that a good recipe can transcend familiar ingredients when it’s made by talented people.
Filed under: Review