A film review of THE BROOKLYN BROTHERS BEAT THE BEST by Timothy E. RAW
"I wanted the film to be about a relationship to the arts. And what
unhealthy, sexy, beautiful, terrifying relationship that can be.
an amazing potential for hope can come out of pouring
something you love, regardless of the outcome."
Director Ryan O'Nan
Lofty aspirations, I'll give him that. At first glance, the precedent of template hipster filmmaking seemingly followed to the letter doesn't work in O'Nan's favour. The Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best is at best and worst, the latest dead-end exemplar of a once fertile scene, the depressing consequence of Garden State's crossover success and subsequent pop culture notoriety. It used to be, the coffee shop soundtrack and navel lint constellation of insincere idiosyncrasies were the principal source of irritation, but these days it's the thuddingly schematic plotting that goads me most. Frankenstiening high concept novelty with the well-worn 30 going on 15 narrative of finally becoming an adult seems to be the indie world's way of endlessly recycling the same story and hoping that no one will notice. If Safety Not Guaranteed was a road trip movie ostensibly about a crazy quack time travelling into the past, yet nominally about a broken hearted cry-baby learning to live up to the responsibilities of the present, The Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best is all too similarly, a road trip movie realisation that there comes a time when outsized romantic whims are best left behind for realistically obtainable goals. With O'Nan dejectedly staring out from inside his giant pink moose costume like a homeless Paul Rudd, what the poster sells as a whacky comedy about two musical misfits going on tour and rocking America with Fisher Price instruments is really just runtime musical padding for O'Nan the filmmaker to uninspiringly state that 'this is it,' and we all better shape up and make the most of what we have, even if it's not what we hoped for.
Like Safety Not Guaranteed, Brooklyn Brothers also makes good on its modern day indie film remit with a fine line in unnecessary jokes at the expense of the disabled. I can just see how pleased O'Nan was with himself when he realised the only thing more adorably quirky than a failed musician singing suicidal songs in a pink moose costume to school kids, would be if those kids had special needs and he punched one of them in the face. Honestly, whereas I might usually get worked up about this sort of thing, the comic timing of the literal punch line and the way the moment was framed was so fumbled, he hardly needs the likes of me pointing out how inappropriate or unfunny it is. No, what bothers me more is that the word retard, used in excess. The presence of which is made worse by Alex's awareness of his own bad taste, choosing to say 'mentally challenged' when in polite company, but then immediately reverting back to offensiveness when joking around with his equally childish bandmate Jim (Michel Weston).
Alex is (at first) a thoroughly unlikeable protagonist, not because he punches disabled children, but because O'Nan the filmmaker adopts an unadvisable comic approach to a character that O'Nan the actor steeps in tragic, lonely failure. Unsurprisingly, such pathetic emasculation raises barely a chuckle. The film opens with the other half of his folk duo, Kyle (Jason Ritter) walking out on him after only three gigs together. The next day, he's dumped by his girlfriend and fired from his job in quick succession, left too broke to pay the rent. Into his life comes self-proclaimed "musical revolutionary" Jim, equally down on his luck after being kicked out of his band – replaced by Kyle no less – a day before going on tour. Using Jim's masterminded cross country route of dive bars and frat houses, which culminates in a battle of the bands, these two cuckolded scraps of the musical junk pile team up and hit the road for one last shot at glory.
Only having time enough to compose a set list of new material in between gigs, the contrivance of Jim simultaneously playing music and driving is one of many incredulities we're supposed to take on trust if we're to enter into the spirit of the film. The pair's impromptu brand of subpar Jon Brion strumming sees Alex on Starbucks acoustic and vocals, while Jim accompanies him with a plethora of re-programmed 80s children's instruments – sounds that have no place, except the most pretentious of Williamsburg loft parties. "The Shins meets Seasame Street" is how the Brooklyn Brothers conceitedly describe their sound and as with the music, so with the film. The croaky, self-pitying musical interludes shot through with pop video lens flares, sing volumes about the film's general level of intelligence, maturity, and oblivious plundering of stale ingredients. This cluelessness is personified by would-be music promoter Cassidy (Arielle Kebbel), who is so out of touch with current music trends that after one of their gigs, she professes to never having heard anything like that in her life. Before embarking on her chosen career path, I might suggest she cast a cursory glance over record label Sub Pop's new millennium output almost ten years prior, a multitude of bands from whom the Brothers ape their sound: Fleet Foxes, The Postal Service, Flight of the Conchords, Wolf Parade and yes, The Shins.*
While much feels cut from well-worn cloth, The Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best does have the distinction of being funnier than the majority of recent contemporary American comedies. Stepping into Jim's makeshift museum of kiddie instruments exploding from the guts of teddy bears, Alex accurately labels him the "Jeffrey Dahmer of the stuffed animal world." As played by Michael Weston, Jim lives up to such a memorable description. The actor's comic timing has an unmediated sharpness that's sorely missed in an era of increasingly self-consciousness laughs. No matter how odd Jim is, his quick wit means he's never off-putting. Weston moves nimbly from gag to gag and it's often impossible to tell just how much Jim is in on his own jokes, as evidenced by Cassidy's double take when he initially describes the duo's sound as "Gloria Estevan meets GWAR" without skipping a beat.
Part of the fun, but also the pitfall of road movies is how they can go off course as feature length excuses for unrelated, detours of the absurd. One such episode has Jim almost secure a marquee arena show, pretending Scott Weiland (of Stone Temple Pilots) is in their band. Confidently rattling off a string of lies, his propensity for bullshit isn't quite professional level, but his bluff very nearly convinces. Whatever comes out of his mouth, you can never be entirely certain where he's going with it. So when Jim spins a comically outrageous tale about his uncle's ball-biting dog, it's surprising to discover that it's actually a riff on a poignantly personal character detail. This humorous aspect laced with melancholy is where film most effectively manages to hit upon its themes.
Though it's Jason Ritter who gets the best dramedy-infused line of the film. After defending his lyrics about "vampire soul sucking sluts" as autobiography, he imparts a final nugget of hard fought wisdom to Alex: "Gotta be a man if you're gonna play the music of men." His statement cuts to the heart of the titular characters' struggle, but also the film's general immaturity, which O'Nan never quite manages to rise above, despite some genuinely unexpected moments of vulnerability. One such moment has Alex finishing a gig to a modest crowd, only to go next door and observe an obviously talented singer-songwriter playing to a crowd of one. Struggling to make ends meet, and ecstatic whenever he attracts an audience that cracks double figures, there's nevertheless an unmistakable recognition that it's this girl who deserves the attention, not him. Cassidy enters, reading his mind, remarking that she probably "had people telling her she could do anything her whole life," underlining the disparity between Alex's sense of entitlement and the more probable reality of soul-crushing musical mediocrity.
And so we come to that title. The Brooklyn Brothers do anything but beat the best, only playing back alley shitholes and never getting past the doors of reputable clubs. An improvised street performance that sees them winning over a gaggle of Goths waiting in line at another concert is eye-rollingly implausible, yet there's a deeper emotional truth here that makes the scenario work. As a mirror of the earlier scene in the special needs school, it's an indication that Alex was in the place he needed to be all along. Resigned to the musical scrap heap, The Brothers play for the 'scraps' of normal society; spurned because the way they live their lives is different to how most people are told to live theirs. While their music dates itself as re-heated leftovers of the previous decade's alternative radio hits, its performance is imbued with the spirit of "pouring yourself into something you love, regardless of the outcome." In their defiant endurance, The Brooklyn Brothers are truly alternative, which goes at least some way toward achieving O'Nan's intentions.
The Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best is currently on limited release from Signature Entertainment.
* Though apparently, being "so last decade" didn't stop O'Nan and Weston landing a record deal with Warner Brothers. Perhaps the film offers an accurate depiction of music promoters after all?