If you work mainly at home, get your mother to do the catering and play one of the lead roles yourself, you might be able to eke out a feature-length movie for $16,000. That's what 27-year-old Edward Burns did.

The surprise is not that Burns got The Brothers McMullen into the can for the cost of the hair dryers on the Waterworld set, but rather that this rough, raw first film is such a nice piece of work. And a very funny one. The Long Island-raised son of a New York cop, writer/director Burns has transformed some of the material of his youth and times into a dark comedy about urban male anxiety. It's not fair to tag him as the new Woody Allen--not yet--but this teeming Irish stew of sibling rivalry, brotherly love and Catholic guilt is one of the most original movies in many a moon. The Sundance Film Festival thought so, too. McMullen won this year's top prize at that cradle of independence, and a new division of Twentieth Century Fox, Fox Searchlight, put a $500,000 salary-paying and touchup job on the picture to make it presentable for theaters.

The bewildered brothers of the title could use a little work themselves. Five years after the death of their booze-sodden brute of a father (and their mother's reunion, on the old sod, with the real love of her life), stiff young Patrick (Mike McGlone) and noncommital Barry (Burns) move into the neat suburban house of the eldest brother, Jack (Jack Mulcahy). Jack is the McMullens' putative father figure these days, but he's just as baffled about matters of the heart as they are. The lone anchor is Jack's appealing wife, Molly (Connie Britton), who wants a family of her own now but puts up with the younger boys' incessant crises of romance and religious faith like a trouper. When Jack suddenly gets embroiled in a guilty affair with one of Barry's former girlfriends (Elizabeth P. McKay), the family plot thickens--propelled by smart-mouthed talk and a heavy dose of comic psychodrama.

When one of his brothers tries to give him advice, Patrick protests, "I don't need any new ideas--I'm confused enough already." And so he is. The suggestion, by his Jewish girlfriend, that he convert provokes some of the most pungent humor in the piece. Meanwhile, the McMullens stumble through life beset by quirks and weaknesses. But none of the movie's weaknesses--spotty acting, mismatched shots and occasional lapses in narrative--is enough to diminish its charms, or the obvious talent of its young creator. This is a time when the independent movement could use a shot in the arm--it's been a while since El Mariachi and The Crying Game started to lift all boats--and Edward Burns just may be the no-budget miracle worker who gets the job done.


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