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Review: Zany 'Half Brothers' Makes Some Serious Points

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Dec 4, 2020
'Half Brothers'
'Half Brothers'  

Director Luke Greenfield, working with screenwriters Jason Shuman and Eduardo Cisneros (story by Ali LeRoi & Cisneros), creates a colorful, often-effective seriocomic film about the complexities of a family with "Half Brothers."

Renato (Luis Gerardo Méndez) spent much of his boyhood with his energetic, fun-loving father, Flavio (Juan Pablo Espinosa) as his best friend and fellow troublemaker. When Mexico's currency collapsed in the 1990s, Flavio was forced to travel North, to the United States, where he worked hard jobs in terrible conditions for less money than U.S. workers were paid. Along the way, something happened... something that led to Renato having a half-brother, Asher (Connor Del Rio) he knew nothing about.

Now, with Flavio on his death bed in Chicago, Renato and Asher meet for the first time. Still angry with Flavio for having never come back to Mexico as he promised he would, Renato is only there grudgingly - at the insistence of his bride to be, Pamela (Pia Watson) - and his intention is to say goodbye to the old man as briefly and impersonally as possible, and then head back home for the wedding, scheduled to take place in just a few days.

But fate, and Flavio, have other plans. Wanting his sons to get to know each other - and also wanting them both to understand what, to them, looks like terrible life choices made for selfish reasons - Flavio has designed a puzzle for Renato and Asher to put together, piece by piece, with each clue leading them to a different destination. They'll understand everything, Flavio tells them, if only they complete the journey he's laid out for them and make their way to Eloise.

Renaldo wants nothing to do with his father's game, and he can't stand Asher. (To be fair, neither can we - at least, not at first.) Asher is ignorant, self-absorbed, silly, feckless, and inappropriate, all of it wrapped up in a bulletproof jocularity that, to the sober and successful Renaldo, embodies American arrogance and entitlement. But Renaldo knows that Pam wants him to face his daddy issues, if for no other reason than that her son, Emilio (Mike A. Salazar), is an oddball that Renaldo isn't equipped to connect with - not with his current attitude toward fatherhood.

The motives are pretty rickety, but the road trip format works well for this odd-couple comedy. What doesn't work so well is the comedy itself, which avoids gross-out frat-boy gags and aims for something a little more substantive, but keeps getting sidetracked by WTF moments and hard-to-swallow coincidences. Exhibit A: One kidnapped goat, snatched from a farm-side petting zoo; both the visit to the farm and the goat-stealing are left-turn, unconvincing developments intended to show how impulsive and unreliable Asher is, but serve ti undermine the script. More misjudged situations follow in the same ludicrous vein.

That's a shame because the screenplay also offers some serious commentary on racism, bullying, the fatuous delusion of "American exceptionalism," and - in the film's hardest-hitting moments - immigration policy. The story leads inevitably to a grand revelation, parts of which fulfill the story's potential (as when the brothers learn the last details of how their father ended up with a second family in the U.S. and why he never returned to Mexico), and parts of which are pure schmaltz - albeit schmaltz that's served up with candy-colored nostalgia that's overtly manipulative but will still melt the stoniest heart.

Harmless holiday fare at worst and sugar-coated social commentary at its best, "Half Brothers" is maybe half the movie it could have been, but it's also family fare that feels appropriate for this holiday season as 2020 - that benighted year - finally winds down. After all, who can't use a few goat-propelled, brawling-brother gags right about now?

"Half Brothers" premieres in theaters Dec. 4

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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