Talk about lost in translation.
When American movies try to remake European ones, why do they fail so frequently?
Latest case in point: “Brothers,” starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Tobey Maguire and, in the worst bit of casting since John Wayne played Genghis Khan in 1950’s “The Conqueror,” Natalie Portman as a military wife.
Is it because English — or Hollywood — is the cultural equivalent of an X-ray machine that reduces all other languages and cultures to a sort of dorky banality? Is it because American scriptwriters can’t help themselves and have to write a different ending? Is it because you can’t really trade one culture for another when you retell a story?
Why did the English remake of a French film called “The Tall Blond with One Black Shoe,” have to be called “The Man with One Red Shoe?” Because red is “funnier” in English than black? Seriously, I have no doubt there was a flurry of memos to that effect at 20th Century Fox in the 1980s when the studio was in preproduction.
In 1988’s “The Vanishing,” a French/Dutch co-production, the ending involved a macabre demise for a significant character. (I am trying not to spoil it in the hopes that you’ll rent it on Netflix.) But in the 1993 American remake, which starred Kiefer Sutherland and Jeff Bridges, the same character survives to fight another day.
Of course, we must acknowledge that there have been some successful translations. I am thinking, for instance, of 1996’s “The Birdcage” which, thanks in large part to Robin Williams, was as funny a remake as the 1978 original. And “High Fidelity,” which recast Nick Hornby’s fabulous novel (set in England with very English characters) in Chicago with John Cusack at the center, was a very satisfying redo.
Somehow, in both cases, the analog recasting was perfect, unforced and seemingly effortless.
Back to “Brothers.”
First, a quick backtrack. In 2004, Susanne Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen made “Brothers,” a Danish film about the almost biblical battle between two brothers, Michael and Jannik. Michael, who is married to Sarah (Connie Nielsen), goes on a U.N. mission in Afghanistan. He’s captured by enemy rebels. To cut a long story short, Jannik — a ne’er do well who is always drunk — pulls himself together to take care of his sister in law and her daughters. When Michael is presumed dead, they become closer. And predictably, Michael re-emerges from the war zone. He’s also crazy because of a terrible thing that happened to him in captivity.
It is not a happy home.
The story is almost ridiculously melodramatic at times. But it works because of at least two things. The direction and the acting.
Specifically, these stage-trained actors (Ulrich Thomsen, Nielsen and Nikolaj Lie Kaas), imbue the hokiest, over the top moments with gravitas. And director Bier employs a highly mobile, deliberately low-tech documentary style. It feels like Shakespearean reality TV, you could say. (At least, I did.) Suddenly, the melodramatic comes across as serious and rather cool.
And then along come Maguire, Gyllenhaal and Portman — all respectable performers in their own way — for the latest movie.
We’re talking about a beat-for-beat duplication of the story. The only difference is, everyone’s American. But there’s something else. And guess what: They eff it up royally. Call it an air of stage-struck self-consciousness. A viral epidemic of intimidation. It’s as if everyone’s trying to be so earnestly deep because, you know, this is a European drama, they burst a collective vein.
The result: Not since “The Hangover” have I giggled so much. This is not good, considering the movie contains one of the most harrowing wartime experiences any soldier can expect to weather.
But how can you take a movie seriously when Maguire — who’s supposed to be the hard, robust soldier — looks like he weighs about 120 pounds dripping wet. (Most of that body weight seems to come from his oversized, bulging eyeballs.) When he tries to intimidate his bulkier, healthier brother, you wonder why Gyllenhaal doesn’t just bitch-slap him and lock him in the broom closet.
And as for Portman, shouldn’t she be in some fake-indie movie set in New Jersey or New York, where everyone’s painfully post-modern, quippy and attractive? She’s so picturesquely self-conscious, you can never buy her performance. John Goodman in drag would be more believable.
There is no gravitas in any of these three performers. They all look as though they just graduated high school and are just playing grownups.
Right now, there’s a remake of another Veber movie under way. Steve Carell and Zach Galifianakis (of “The Hangover,” by coincidence) are filming “Dinner of Schmucks,” which is a remake of the funny 1998 “Dinner Game.
I reserve some hope for it because Carell and Galifianakis are so funny. But I am not abundantly confident. Will they understand it’s not just the words that get translated? It’s the actions, gestures, mannerisms, inflections. The spaces between lines. The gesture of the hands. Tics of the face. It’s about losing yourself in the spirit of the thing, not putting yourself out in front of it.
It’s about becoming a brother from Denmark, not a redheaded stepchild from the Upper West Side or SoCal.