“My Blind Brother” is a romantic comedy that spins around one central thesis: what if a blind person was a selfish prick? That’s the joke in the middle of the threadbare, laughless plot that brings together a quartet of immensely talented people — Nick Kroll, Adam Scott, Jenny Slate, Zoe Kazan — and sees them all (with the exception of the latter) playing variations of pathetic and pitiable. And it’s hard to tell if it makes the film better or worse that they all share such great chemistry and charisma together; “My Blind Brother” is certainly the best version of this script you’ll get thanks to the cast, but it’s also a painful viewing experience to see such potential so thoroughly wasted, and such magnetism dulled off.
Robbie (Scott) is a small town hero thanks to his bravery in the face of blindness, which has turned him into an ambitious athlete who spends his time raising money for the charity Out Of Sight (ha). After finishing a recent marathon, Robbie has his sights set on a new fundraising and personal goal — swimming across a lake, and this is exciting news for everyone around him except his brother, Bill (Kroll). He’s the fuckup sibling, the one whose only achievement seems to be running a copy store, but he’s been by Robbie’s side through many of his athletic accomplishments, literally acting as his eyes during marathons or other activities. But he also sees Robbie for the self-absorbed, superficial narcissist that he is, who watches — or at least listens — to replays of his own events, and has counted how many times he’s appeared on newscasts. Robbie is the center of his own universe, and Bill is ready to jump into a spaceship and find his own galaxy.
And so enters Rose (Slate), who Bill meets one evening at a bar that is also hosting a wake. Rose is barely holding it together, feeling guilt for the man being remembered, an ex-boyfriend, who she was breaking up with when he ran out and was hit by a bus. Bill manages to put a smile on her face, and the two share a connection, one that’s consummated that same night. However, Rose is still fragile and dedicates herself to doing good work to try and erase the death on her conscience, rather than enter a new relationship. The twist? She becomes Robbie’s assistant as he trains for the swim, only to find out later his brother is Bill! And things get more complicated when her own mixed up feelings lead her into an entanglement with Robbie, even though she really likes Bill. Oh my!
“My Blind Brother” is one of those movies that would be over in about ten minutes, if everyone just said what they feel, rather than string along a series of deceptions until the inevitable conclusion. And while this is a common trope in romantic comedies, it’s also one that’s rarely used well, and in this film that story device has the added bonus of thoroughly stripping the female lead of her agency. It’s up to Bill and Rose’s roommate Francie (Kazan) to continually to tell Rose that maintaining a romance with Robbie is wrong, and assure her that her feelings that she’s a bad person are incorrect. The idea of someone confusing grief, guilt and new romance could have a lot there to play with for an actress, but Slate is rarely given a chance to dive into those complexities. Overall, the entire cast are stuck in characters that blunt their natural spark: Kroll has never been this lifeless; Scott has done this kind of role better elsewhere; and Kazan is the bestie who’s rarely seen except when the plot demands it.
Writer/director Sophie Goodheart, making her debut feature film, attempts to expand upon a previous short, but can’t even get “My Blind Brother” to ninety minutes. The film plays like a series of incidents stitched together rather than as a cohesive narrative, and with the characters lacking any meaningful depth, it makes the tonal shift to the slightly more dramatic in the final act if not unconvincing, then jarring. And the anonymous twee score by Ian Hultquist — that’s almost a parody of the kind of music you hear in many Sundance styled indies — only aids in making “My Blind Brother” feel slight. None of this would particularly matter if the picture delivered on the kind of laughs one would expect from this ensemble, but “My Blind Brother” is mirthless, though Kroll and Slate have a delightfully easy charm that occasionally rises above the tedium.
It’s something of a cheap out to make the blind character mostly unsympathetic as a reason to excuse the predictable reunion of the film’s inevitable romantic leads, and a braver version of “My Blind Brother” would’ve dared to make Robbie kinder, placing an actual conflict at the core of the story. Instead, everyone dances around the feelings of a boor — because he’s blind! — and the routine gets tired fast. [D]