At his best, director Robert Mulligan was a uniquely gifted observer of subtle human behavior—witness To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Summer of ’42 (1971), and The Man in the Moon (1991). To his great credit, Mulligan often ventured outside his comfort zone of gentle character drama, even though the results of his artistic walkabouts were inconsistent. As a case in point, Mulligan was not the right person to direct this adaptation of Richard Price’s novel about a family of volatile Italian-Americans, because Mulligan proved incapable of restraining certain actors from venturing into overwrought caricature. Plus, since Bloodbrothers was released at a time when Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese were exploding Italian-American stereotypes, the movie feels pointlessly regressive. To be clear, it’s an entertaining picture with many heartfelt moments, and not all of the performances are shrill. Nonetheless, it’s an aberration from the era of The Godfather (1972) and Mean Streets (1973).
Set in the Bronx, the movie follows the adventures of Thomas “Stony” De Coco (Richard Gere), a young man trying to figure out what to do with his life even though his hotheaded father, Tommy De Coco (Tony Lo Bianco), expects Stony to work alongside Tommy and Tommy’s brother, Louis “Chubby” De Coco (Paul Sorvino), in construction. Whereas Chubby and Tommy are animalistic he-men who spend their time chasing women and getting into fights, Stony is a sensitive sort who wants to work with children. His nurturing instinct manifests in protective behavior toward his little brother, Albert (Michael Hershewe), because the X factor in the De Coco family is Tommy’s wife, Marie De Coco (Leila Goldoni). Worn out from years of Tommy’s infidelity and physical/verbal abuse, Marie has become an abuser herself, so she’s traumatized Albert into developing anorexia. Meanwhile, Stony finds something like romance with women including Annette (Marilu Henner), a barmaid known as the “town pump” because of her promiscuity.
There’s a lot of story in Bloodbrothers, all of it pitched to a histrionic level, even though modulation and restraint would have been required to find the universal truths in the material. Mulligan films scenes well, but he lets actors run wild. Gere, Henner, and costar Kenneth McMillan (as a local bar owner) deliver nuanced performances, and Sorvino’s over-the-top work would have been more effective had he been the only outsized actor. Alas, Lo Biano’s genuinely terrible performance throws the whole enterprise off-kilter. Playing a cartoonish version of a macho asshole, Lo Biano toggles between screaming, pleading, and whimpering. Worse, his ridiculous energy level causes other actors to amplify their work just to ensure they’re not overwhelmed. By the time the story resolves into a coming-of-age narrative about Stony breaking from his family’s toxic influence, the potential for genuine emotion has been bludgeoned away.