Stories of sibling rivalry can be as trite as romantic comedies. They feud; there’s a backstory; they love each other again. But even though writer-director Theresa Rebeck’s “Trouble” follows this predictable path, it’s charming enough to make you forgive the familiarity.
That’s due in large part to its leads: Anjelica Huston (playing against type in a cowboy hat) and Bill Pullman are Maggie and Ben, a sister and brother whose paths cross when Ben shows up on Maggie’s rural property with a backhoe. But it’s his property, he insists. Some mutual friends show up mid-scuffle; Maggie rustles up the sheriff (Brian d’Arcy James — like Huston, a veteran of Rebeck’s “Smash”). Nothing much comes of it, but Maggie’s shooed away to give Ben a chance to show the sheriff the papers he insists he has.
Indeed, he does have papers that show the property is his. His argument is that their father left them both the land, even though Ben sold his part to Maggie when he needed some money. (It’s the thought that counts, he supposes.) But a bit of digging by the sheriff reveals — via Rachel, Julia Stiles’ nervous town record-keeper — that the documents were given prematurely, predicated on the assumption that Maggie wouldn’t be able to pay her sizable amount of back taxes.
It takes a while before this revelation is discovered by the interested parties. In the meantime, Ben tramples Maggie’s flower bed (jerk) and she shoots him in the shoulder (he kinda deserved it). She’s arrested and spends half the day in jail. “Are you gonna shoot anybody else?” the sheriff asks when she demands to be released. “Why would I?” she answers with amusing exasperation.
Throughout the film, there are flashbacks to the siblings’ of-course-idyllic childhood, sometimes involving their friend Gerry (David Morse). Their father explains nature to them; the kids bury a time capsule. By now we know that Gerry has always carried a torch for Maggie — proven by the somewhat creepy photos of her that he keeps on his refrigerator — whose husband died a year ago. She’s nice to him but doesn’t know.
Also involved in the dustup is Curt (Jim Parrack, “The Deuce”), a kind-of-scuzzy 20-something who sleeps in his car and helps Ben with whatever work (or predicament) he has, though there’s more to the relationship. He’s dating Rachel, which is how she got involved in this mess. He’d promised her she wouldn’t get in trouble for giving Ben the documents early. She doesn’t quite believe him but incredulously helps him out further. What comes of this isn’t known, because Ben starts coughing and you know it’s going to be bad news — but maybe not, as far as he and Maggie are concerned, because paint by numbers.
Pullman’s Ben is a scruffy, slightly crazed rascal. He relishes getting under Maggie’s skin, at least until her bullet gets under his. He’s nothing but mouth, and though you root for her during their arguments, the bouts are always funny. Huston’s Maggie, meanwhile, is steely, testy, and unafraid of her little brother. She knows she’s in the right, though why Ben is so insolent to her is perhaps a surprise. Both are entertaining.
Morse is a gentle and cool-headed presence amidst all the bickering, and though Stiles is barely in the movie, she brings as much young-woman uncertainty to the unsure Rachel as she can (even though Stiles is actually 37).
“Trouble” rambles amiably toward its unsurprising conclusion with some bits of humor, such as when a nurse at a hospital that Ben must return to asks, “Wasn’t that guy, like, just here?” with an eyeroll. It’s no real spoiler to say that everyone makes nice in the end. And though it’s fun to watch Pullman and Huston sparring, it’s nearly as pleasant to watch their characters make up. Because that’s what siblings do.