Burns’ Comic Realism Remains, His Brothers Are Gone

Edward Burns’ No Looking Back marks both an advance and two interesting changes of direction from this young writer-actor-director’s two acclaimed films, The Brothers McMullen (1995) and She’s the One (1996). Up to now, Mr. Burns has comically chronicled the problems of working-class Irish-Catholic young men faced with adjusting their guilt-ridden sex drives to the emotional needs of the women they encounter. No Looking Back shifts the focus to an Irish-Catholic young woman trapped in a New Jersey beach town and the choices she must make between two men, and between staying and going. Furthermore, Mr. Burns, a triple-threat acting, writing and directing auteur, has stopped playing variations of his own successful self, as he did in The Brothers McMullen and She’s the One . Instead, he has chosen in No Looking Back to play a darker and less romantic character than the rising star leaping from the ‘burbs to Manhattan with his writing talents in his first two efforts. Comparatively, and considering that as I write this Mr. Burns is completing a leading role in a Steven Spielberg film with Tom Hanks, the character he plays sinks into his environment as a loser.

Curiously, Mr. Burns’ scripts have followed a reversed route from Woody Allen’s at comparable stages in their careers. Whereas Mr. Allen played clunky fools in his early farces, he began playing more accurate approximations of his real-life eminence in his two great movie masterpieces, Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979). Where Mr. Burns will go from here is anybody’s guess; he has not stuck to the course of his career “independent filmmaker” contemporaries. He has thus far not displayed any of the absurdist tendencies of fellow Long Islander and Sundance alumnus Hal Hartley. Nor does Mr. Burns seem to be following in the footsteps of the politically passionate John Sayles and the stylistically and thematically adventurous Steven Soderbergh.

It is not that Mr. Burns has taken the easy way out, given his greater accessibility to the mainstream establishment than has been achieved by most of his Sundance contemporaries, though it has been whispered from the beginning that he is too commercial. Even when he was working on a shoestring, he revealed the kind of amiably creative flair that is often overlooked by film snobs in their unending quest for audience-unfriendly breakthroughs to punish the paying customers for their bourgeois tastes. In The Brothers McMullen , for example, he grabs the audience with an outrageously funny cemetery scene, and never lets go. He strikes a more ruefully sour note in No Looking Back by having a truck driver fling his tip into a messy breakfast plate as he leaves, and follows that in the next split-second with the ironic smile of Lauren Holly’s Claudia, our bedeviled waitress-heroine for the next 96 minutes. Even though we are given to understand in the most economical way possible that Claudia clearly wants out of her position in life, she nonetheless carefully retrieves the tip, despite the contemptuous way it was given. This, in a nutshell, is the Burns formula for comic realism.

As the movie progresses, however, Mr. Burns strikes deeper chords of feeling in his characters than he has in the past. The laughs are few and far between as Claudia tries to resolve her various dilemmas in the dead of winter in a dreary seaside town reminiscent of the one in Federico Fellini’s I Vitelloni . Only here the men are not Fellini’s middle-class loafers, but working-class stiffs who drown their sorrows at the local bar with their girlfriends. Claudia lives with sure and steady Michael (Jon Bon Jovi), who wants to marry her more than she wants to marry him, a situation one seldom encounters in an American movie. Still, Claudia might have drifted and dwindled into marriage if a crisis had not been precipitated by the return to town of her irresponsible first love, Charlie (Mr. Burns), who had abandoned her a few years before when she was having an abortion. Michael and Charlie are old friends, but now Claudia stands between them, and it is up to her to end the impasse. It is to Mr. Burns’ credit as a storyteller with believable characters that the movie generates considerable suspense about Claudia’s ultimate choice.

In his previous films, the plots were constructed around male siblings with mostly absent mothers and curmudgeon fathers. No Looking Back shifts the emotional balance to female siblings, Claudia and Kelly (Connie Britton), and their mother (Blythe Danner), still grieving over their abandonment by a father and husband molded out of the same morally rotten material as Claudia’s Charlie. What Claudia finally decides is both logical and deeply satisfying. And there is never a false note from beginning to end.

Ms. Holly, Ms. Danner and Ms. Britten achieve an uncanny rapport under the aegis of a male director who clearly likes and respects women without overidealizing them. Indeed, Ms. Holly’s richly expressive performance comes as something of a revelation, and it is good to see the ineffable Ms. Danner in a juicy movie role for a change. Mr. Burns and Mr. Bon Jovi handle their comparatively thankless roles as different kinds of losers with as much zest and style as they would expend if they were cast as masters of the universe. Mr. Burns, as an ever developing actor himself, seems uncommonly generous to the actors around him.

Character Reference: Better Than Oscar-Worthy

Mike van Diem’s Character , based on the novel of the same title by F. Bordewijk, is the Dutch nominee for this year’s Foreign Film Oscar, but it is much better than Oscar-worthy. Indeed, Character is a full-bodied Dickensian delight such as we seldom get in movies anymore, taking us on a roller-coaster ride from poverty and disgrace in childhood to bittersweet success and riches in adulthood, with a procession of the most unforgettable characters you are likely to see on the screen this year.

The film begins with a confrontation and an apparent murder. In the course of the “investigation,” a featurelong flashback takes us from the Rotterdam of the 1920’s to the eve of World War II; it is unclear whether it is before or after, but it is certainly not during. There is a major Communist character, and a few Popular Front rallies, but Character is not about politics. It is about what its title proclaims; how one’s character is formed and deformed by nature and nurture, by genes and luck, and how it is toughened by rejection and cruelty.

A lawyer named Katadreuffe (Fedja Van Huei) becomes a logical suspect in the apparent murder of the city’s most monstrously uncaring bailiff, Dreverhaven (Jan Decleir), who has been found slain in his place of business. As Katadreuffe, the last man to see Dreverhaven alive, is questioned, we learn that he is Dreverhaven’s child, born out of wedlock to Joba Katadreuffe (Betty Schurman), Dreverhaven’s silent, stoical maid. One night when some mysteriously human impulse stirred within him, he had his way with her. She repeatedly refused his offer of marriage after moving out of his house with her child. She never married, but neither was she a conspicuously lovable mother to her son, preferring to remain silent most of the time. Katadreuffe is thus the product of two obsessively obstinate and laconic parents, one of whom mostly ignores him as if she regrets his having been born, and the other who goes out of his way to torment him and place obstacles in his path.

But nothing in this marvelous story is exactly as it seems at first glance, and as our hero perseveres, he finally achieves success at the expense of happiness and true love, a trade-off he regrets in retrospect, but he is consoled somewhat by the unlocking of the door to the central secret of his existence.

Rebel Zellweger

Boaz Yakin’s A Price Above Rubies has already aroused the ire of spokesmen for the Hasidic community in New York for its treatment of the subject of one woman’s rebellion against the strictures of the Torah, particularly about loving God more than one’s spouse. As is to be expected, Mr. Yakin has stacked the deck on behalf of the individual against the group, in this instance, the Hasidim. Renée Zellweger is already a bit of a stretch as the Hasidic wife, Sonia, and yet it is her anguished resourcefulness as an actress that keeps the movie going at all, that and Christopher Eccleston’s satanic snake in Borough Park’s Garden of Eden as Sonia’s brother-in-law Sender.

Sonia finds it difficult to articulate her malaise from time to time, and so a touch of magic realism has been added to the script to express her inner life: Yossi (Shelton Dane), the ghost of her dead brother, and a beggar woman (Kathleen Chalfant) who pops up at crucial moments with words of mystifying wisdom. Kim Hunter’s Rebbitzn figures in a rather daring plot gambit as wife-turned-widow for one night of connubial consecration after a lifetime of living in the shadows of a jealous God. It all sounds too facile, and I suppose it is, but I enjoyed it all the same, although I am suspicious of outsiders judging a community from the inside out instead of from the outside in. Still, Ms. Zellweger, Mr. Eccleston, Julianna Margulies as Sonia’s conformist sister-in-law Rachel and Glenn Fitzgerald as Sonia’s eventually enlightened husband Mendel help make A Price Above Rubies at least worth the price of admission.