In the half-blind rush to cram and catch up on those last great (or not as) films to reach avid eyeballs in the final six weeks of the calendar year, even the most determined will have to let a stray handful go, prioritizing the bigger deals over the smaller outfits. Despite having a great distributor in the careful hands of Focus Features, who have been on a fantastic roll this year, one of their major December titles is bound to be wrongfully ignored. Admittedly, if increasingly significant works were coming down my pipeline, the need to pick and choose would be more precarious, just like family when one lets the others down. There’s no shame in admitting I would’ve probably passed on Luke Greenfield’s Half Brothers in favor of something with a sharper palette and a better representation of extended family while on a madcap scavenger hunt road trip. The bar has just been set too high, really.
Extended may not be enough to explain the Murguias. Time and distance play key roles as father Flavio (Juan Pablo Espinosa) faces unconquerable adversity to provide for his family, namely young son Renato (Luis Gerardo Mendez) whom he lends his future success in the aviation realm to his enthusiastic dad. Growing up in Mexico in 1994, their bond was unbreakable until a national financial collapse hit the country in a sweeping fashion. That forced Flavio to cross the border in search of honest work for relatively a fraction of the pay, and Renato to age into a cynical adult, satisfied in business and anticipating a long-overdue wedding with sweetheart Pamela (Pia Watson).
All looks to be going his way until a random call from a concerned individual puts Renato on a plane to Chicago for a chance encounter with his estranged father, in a hospital bed, clinging to life. It’s there he discovers he has a half-brother as the result of an entanglement the pair uncover while on a lengthy excursion, a socially awkward yuppie named Asher (Conor del Rio). He’s the living embodiment of just about everything Renato cannot stand with American culture, and yet they don’t have many options but to get along while traveling back to Mexico in time for the wedding, to uncover the secrets their father’s been hiding for 25 years, and the identity of a mysterious individual named “Eloise”. And apparently, there’s also a pet goat riding in the backseat for no reason other than to provide a wash of comic relief.
The pet is cute with a lively personality, but its purpose is very questionable. That’s the logic Greenfield, back in the director’s chair after a six-year absence (anyone remember Let’s Be Cops?) is hesitant, and almost lazy to work with for the entire picture. This very opposite mismatch comedy struggles in the comedy department, its script shared in credit between Ali LeRoi (Everybody Hates Chris), Eduardo Cisneros (Instructions Not Included), and Jason Shuman (Rebel in the Rye) but varying greatly in perspectives. While Greenfield sets the pace with exhaustingly breakneck sitcom antics to test Renato and Asher’s sudden siblinghood, this writing duo can’t agree on keeping their plot on a coherent chase. There’s the faint stench of The Bucket List mixed with Due Date, with truckers, pawnshop brokers, a retrospective bar owner (a delightful Jose Zuniga), and stereotypically chatty air ticket clerks joining in for the rambunctious cavalcade.
The path is then disastrously muddled to bridge what should’ve been a touching drama with the PG-13 equivalent of a laugh-a-minute madcap adventure. The final mix fails to impress, Greenfield really rolling the motions instead of jumping off them. And much of that at the expense of Del Rio, regrettably an annoying portrayal of American millennials. Asher’s portrayed as a slacker unsure of a life’s direction, Flavio always disapproving of his near lack of ambition, the harlequin to overacting straight man Mendez. Renato must put up with more than his lion’s share of events on this crazy journey, an uptight, hard-working captain of industry pitted against a guy who could easily have worked nary a day. His look proves that, all too well. Mendez does well with this comic premise, but both are certainly starved for higher-quality material that fails to show. The closest we get is a recurring gag with the use of ethanol, building up to a daring escape and rescue scene. At least Espinoza is there, the steady rock of the family, the bulk of his, and Renato’s often triumphant backstory told in flashbacks, with a vibrant frustration occupying his fatherly soul.
If there had been a greater effort to intertwine said flashbacks into the heart of the story, dialed down Asher’s role by multiple degrees, then the momentum which often accompanies a soul-searching cross-country zigzag might’ve left a more noticeable impression. The string-heavy musical stylings of Jordan Siegel (The Willoughbys) and wide, sweeping visual shots at the eyes of DoP Thomas Scott Stanton (Crown Vic) make for welcome touches to the film’s dramatic scope. Moreover, its cathartic finale proves sufficient in bringing that overarching theme of family redemption to a solid footing.
I’m sure Greenfield looked like the right director for the job, except when a given scene does not call for hilarity wasted on what deserved to be more skewing toward the realm of comic human drama. The heart was in the right place on Half Brothers, but its mind was wandering somewhere else. Like just about any comedy these days, and akin to the kind of environmentally conscious auto Asher drives, the mileage will vary greatly. Especially at a time of year where most minds would be wandering off while time is most valuable. And whether it be time better spent with a loved one or with a story working deliberately harder for its humor, better to drive off in a different direction. (C-; 2.5/5 Horns Up!)
Half Brothers is playing in most open theaters this weekend; PVOD for everyone else soon; rated PG-13 for some violence and strong language; 96 minutes.