With the declining box-office returns of every new Tom Cruise movie and the preprogrammed success of Pixar's animation empire (We make great movies...because we say so!) a license for every Arts & Leisure columnist to bemoan "The End of Movie Stars," it's worth checking out Broken Embraces, the latest by Pedro Almodovar, as a reminder of the essence of what Hollywood has either abandoned or forgotten. Stardom is the film's very subject: a former director of Spanish cinema (Lluis Homar), now a blind screenwriter going by the Graham Greene-ish name of Harry Caine, receives an unexpected visitor from the past with a link to the love of Harry's life, a fledgling actress named Lena (Penelope Cruz). What unfolds is a pair of related storylines: one in the present, where Harry investigates his suspicions of the stranger, who calls himself "Ray X" (Ruben Ochindiano); the other set fourteen years earlier, where we learn how Harry's relationship with Lena caused him to lose his sight.
There is much more to Broken Embraces than even that -- jealous husbands, drug overdoses, illegitimate children -- but the movie is a lot more complicated to explain than it is to watch. Almodovar relishes twisting his plot into knots (one critic accurately described it as Hitchcock-meets-Sirk) and providing nearly every major character with at least one pseudonym. Yet you always know where you are, who you're looking at, what they're feeling and why.
I'm a relative newbie to Almodovar, having seen four out of his last five movies but unacquainted with his earlier work. Some critics who are seem less impressed with Broken Embraces: the gist of many reviews is along the lines of: "Ho-hum! Another good movie." For me, though, the depth of emotion beneath the splashy colors and soap-opera antics is compelling to watch. It's also terrific fun. And Penelope Cruz, dismissed as a Hooked-On-Phonics joke in her American films prior to Vicky Cristina Barcelona (counting myself among her detractors), comes into full-bloom before Almodovar's gaze. Through Harry's eyes -- and, later, his memories -- we see how her Lena simultaneously destroys and fulfills him. It's quite a risk to draw visual allusions between your leading lady and the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn, yet Broken Embraces proves that in the black hole of modern cinema, Cruz burns brightly.
Meanwhile, back in the U.S. of A., we have Brothers, a wartime melodrama that's like a Tennessee Williams heavy-breather performed by the St. Mary's High School Players. For the movie to work, we need to believe that Tobey Maguire is a hard-bitten Marine commander stationed in Afghanistan, and that Natalie Portman, as his wife back home, is a harried mother of two precocious daughters in small-town Red State America. It's not their youthful looks that ring false; it's their Hollywood smoothness that dooms the film from the start.
Still, Maguire and Portman try hard to make it work, as does Jake Gyllenhaal, more persuasive as the Marine's jailbird younger brother. When Sam (Maguire's character) is taken prisoner by Afghani soldiers and presumed dead, brother Tommy (Gyllenhaal) becomes deeply involved with Grace (Portman) and his nieces. I've found Gyllenhaal woefully out of his depth in Zodiac and other recent films (my dad once remarked, "He always looks like he's about to cry"), but he creates a fully lived-in character here. Sam is a screw-up who rises to the occasion when others need him, and Gyllenhaal renders authentic his feelings for Grace and Tommy even as Portman and Maguire fail to offer a reason why.
Brothers was directed by Jim Sheridan, possibly described best as a distant Irish cousin to the acclaimed American-Emo filmmaker James Gray (whose movies I loathe). Like Gray, Sheridan is praised for his sensitivity and overt embrace of emotion. Unlike Gray, he has a sense of humor and pacing and how to shape a scene: one such latter instance -- a tense birthday gathering where an unhinged Sam (newly returned from Afghanistan) confronts a resentful daughter, with a party balloon employed like a ticking time-bomb -- is staged masterfully. The director also tries some things with his young cast that work better than expected (Maguire, believe it or not, comes to bear a startling resemblance to Travis Bickle), and sets up a potentially tiresome character (Sam and Tommy's ultraconservative father, played by Sam Shepard) only to draw some surprising contours. However, as in his last film, In America -- which combined the stark realism of an Irish immigrant family's struggle to survive in New York with the fable of a black man dying so that they may live -- Sheridan can't distinguish his good ideas from his bad. Yet I suspect even he knows that his cast isn't up to snuff: in the Golden Age of Hollywood, they'd be caddies to the stars.