At multiple points throughout his career, Edward Burns has been a disappointment. He’s not currently a disappointment–in fact, his now five-year absence from feature filmmaking is distressing, given his last film’s success; Fitzgerald Family Christmas is great. But many times over his eleven film, seventeen year filmmaking career–writing, director, producing, and starring–he has disappointed. Over those seventeen years, Burns grew as a filmmaker, changed as a filmmaker, but never found consistent quality. Some excellent films, definitely, but also some stinkers.
When The Brothers McMullen came out in 1995, studios had just started getting into their nineties flirtation with independent and low budget filmmaking. Burns shot McMullen on a shoestring budget using borrowed cameras. His co-producer (and cinematographer and editor) Dick Fisher’s filmography is otherwise filled with very low budget East Coast independent films. And if I’m remembering right, only one actor in McMullen had a SAG card–Jack Mulcahy, who got it on Porky’s almost fifteen years earlier. McMullen, shot on 16mm, usually indoors to cover Burns not having filming permits–the film’s making itself has a wonderfully scrappy story–looks at three brothers. There’s eldest Mulcahy, baby Mike McGlone, and problem middle child Burns. Burns gives McGlone the best story arc and the film’s best writing, while Mulcahy gets to narrate his own storyline (occasionally); Burns gives himself the romantic dramedy with (at the time) real-life girlfriend Maxine Bahns. To varying degrees, all three brothers just need to grow up a little, something the women in their lives wait patiently for them to accomplish.
McMullen is a singular film for Burns as a director in numerous ways, but nothing more than how well he does with the constraints. When he’d return to micro-budgets fifteen years later, he’d have DV to use; shooting 16mm, the film exudes texture. The silent moments are full, heavy with the film’s visual grain. Burns and Fisher rely a lot on that visual tone, especially with Mulcahy and McGlone’s story lines. All of the performances are good, especially McGlone and Connie Britton (as Mulcahy’s wife), and there’s a capable nimbleness to the film.
As far as a legacy goes, Brothers McMullen doesn’t really have one. Fox Searchlight has put it out in studio retrospects and a single release blu-ray–at the time of its original home video release, Fox Home Video put out a very nice LaserDisc, complete with insightful Burns commentary–but the audience for the film (like Burns’s audience itself) is stagnant. There was initial interest in the film, with Burns as the boy next door version of Kevin Smith or Quentin Tarantino. He just never generated similarly dedicated fan bases.
Maybe he would have worked up a fan base if his next film, She’s the One, hadn’t been such a misfire. With a bigger budget and McMullen as a sales pitch, Burns got Cameron Diaz as the titular She (sort of), Jennifer Aniston in a major supporting part and John Mahoney as the dad in the movie. Burns brought back (still) real-life girlfriend Maxine Bahns and Mike McGlone from McMullen and then gave himself a much bigger part. Burns and Bahns are in a whirlwind romance, McGlone is married to Aniston and cheating on her with Diaz. Diaz is Burns’s ex-girlfriend. It could be a comedy of errors if all the characters weren’t willfully deceitful. She’s the One is a slick, mainstream, ostensibly eclectic New York romantic comedy. It’s so eclectic it’s got a Tom Petty soundtrack.
That Tom Petty soundtrack is excellent, which is good, because it’s about the only excellent thing about She’s the One. Burns’s script is a wreck, both in terms of plotting and detail. He’s constantly falling back on homophobia and slut shaming for jokes; those devices should play worse, but McGlone’s such a loathsome jerk they’re in line. Burns doesn’t give himself much of a better character than McGlone gets, but McGlone gets a lot more to do; he suffers the attention. Aniston and Mahoney are able to get through. Diaz isn’t. Bahns is great until her part goes down the drain. Everyone is a caricature, waiting for their next witty line to deliver. Burns is terrified to show any non-ironic sincerity.
I’ve never heard anyone speak highly of She’s the One. At the time of its release, the Tom Petty soundtrack album might have gotten some attention. It is a fantastic album. Fox has put out a blu-ray, which I suppose is a good thing, though I can’t imagine recommending the film to anyone myself. The worst part about it is how Burns slaughters the momentum of McGlone’s acting career, which McMullen started (and championed).
Following She’s the One, Burns went and got himself cast in a high profile blockbuster, Saving Private Ryan. Pretty soon, Burns’s attempts at furthering both a directing career and an acting one would have a big impact but not with his third film, No Looking Back. It came out four months before Private Ryan.
While No Looking Back is a tonal shift from She’s the One–it’s not just a downer, but one without any laughs for the viewer and only occasional ones for some of the characters–Burns does bring back some of the crew. Frank Prizi photographs, Susan Graef edits, both to much greater success than before. No Looking Back is a patient, tediously humdrum drama about small-town New York (but not Long Island) waitress Lauren Holly. Her ex-boyfriend’s return threatens her current relationship with Mr. Right. Burns plays the ex-boyfriend, who’s sort of a variation on his previous characters, only not played for sympathy, while Jon Bon Jovi plays Mr. Right. Connie Britton is back from McMullen, playing Holly’s sister. No Looking Back also has Ted Hope returning to produce; he executive produced McMullen and produced She’s the One. No Looking Back was his last collaboration with Burns.
No Looking Back has a somewhat rocky first half, cushioned nicely by Prizi’s photography, and then it does an about-face halfway through–once Holly finally gets to be the lead–and gets real good. Burns uses a few Patti Scialfa tracks (it’s a constant bummer the movie doesn’t have a soundtrack album) and then some Springsteen. There’s no fanfare about either artist contributing music (Scialfa’s contributions are otherwise unreleased, Springsteen’s are narratively significant classics), but having the Springsteen music in the narrative, on the soundtrack, changes the film’s course. It finishes thoughtful, downbeat, and as rending as Burns can make it. The cast helps a lot and Burns is able to smooth the rocky first half thanks the crew and music.
According to Burns, his friends called the film Nobody Saw It, which is about right. Polygram released it theatrically, barely, and on home video, temporarily (it went out of print fast). Fox subsequently put it out in a Burns DVD three-pack–“Stories from Long Island”–but it too seems to be out of print. The film requires some indulgence, just because the first half frustrates as Burns (acting) and Bon Jovi basically mansplain everything to Holly until she finally gets her agency. Once she does, however, No Looking Back gets good fast. It’s unfortunate no one sees it.
With the exception of Frank Prizi returning as photographer, Burns’s next film–2001’s Sidewalks of New York–is a complete break from his previous pictures. Most significantly, he’s got Margot Bridger producing with him; she goes on to produce his next four films. But Sidewalks is also not a “Long Island story.” Instead, it’s all Manhattan, all the time, and the cast is much more mainstream, whether it’s stars on the rise–Rosario Dawson and Brittany Murphy (and arguably David Krumholtz)–established character actors (Dennis Farina and Stanley Tucci), or maybe movie star Heather Graham (career newly energized from Boogie Nights). Graham and Burns were dating at the time, so obviously she’s his love interest in the film. Sidewalks is all about the romantic trials and tribulations of its characters, with Burns using the camera to directly interview them between the scenes.
Sidewalks is an accessible, affable, solid effort from Burns. He doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, he just gets it rolling pretty well. The film has its problems, some significant ones, but it also has some excellent performances. Burns, as an actor, lets himself hang back a little; he’ll just watch as Farina gnaws on their scenes, for example. Dawson, Murphy, and Krumholtz are all excellent. Graham is just sort of there, but not in a damaging way. It’s “just” an amusement–not too deep, not too slight–and a successful one.
While I know I saw Sidewalks of New York in the theater with two other people, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of anyone besides the two people I saw it with seeing it. This film, more than any other, seems like Burns attempting to leverage his mainstream movie stardom–as it was–into interest for his directing efforts. Even if he had the rest of the cast overshadow him. Regardless of its strengths, weaknesses, and all around sturdiness, Sidewalks of New York is mostly forgotten. At least I think it’s mostly forgotten. Again, I’ve never heard of anyone else seeing it. It doesn’t have a blu-ray, the DVD is out of print, but you can stream it in HD. So maybe someone else has finally seen it. Possibly.
Burns followed Sidewalks with Ash Wednesday the next year. It’s Burns’s first film where he takes top acting billing (except when due to alphabetical cast) and is again set in Manhattan, again with Margot Bridger producing, and again with Rosario Dawson costarring. The film is set in the early eighties, complete with a David Shire score and an iMovie sepia filter on the photography to make it seem old timey. Freshly Frodo Elijah Wood is the second male lead, playing Burns’s brother, who comes home after being presumed dead. Wood’s the tough Irish mob kid, Dawson’s his wife, Burns is in love with the wife.
Ash Wednesday is terrible. Even though Burns’s direction is fine, maybe even good for the opening act (pre-Wood), once Wood shows up, it’s a terrible. Wood’s awful, Dawson’s either miscast or mortified, Burns’s character is a mess. Ash Wednesday is a great example of how talented actors and filmmakers can still come together and create a truly atrocious motion picture. The film mercilessly wastes the strong supporting cast–including Oliver Platt, James Handy, and Peter Gerety. There aren’t enough negative adjectives to properly describe Ash Wednesday. It should be avoided at all costs.
And, it turns out people did avoid Ash Wednesday at all costs (it opened in two theaters). The film’s very much an end to Burns’s initial filmmaking trajectory; it also coincides with his big time movie star roles drying up. I remember seeing it in college–not in one of the two theaters on release, but VHS and maybe later on DVD. The concept–Irish Mean Streets meets romantic potboiler in dirty old New York–isn’t inherently a bad one, but Burns doesn’t have much more than the concept. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone else watching the movie, which is good. Like I said before, it should be avoided at all costs. Especially if you like anyone involved.
Burns took a couple years off from directing; when he returned, it was with a very different kind of film. Looking for Kitty also starts of Burns’s second filmmaking trajectory. It’s is another Manhattan picture. It brings back McMullen’s Connie Britton–as Burns’s love interest in a super-small subplot–and Sidewalks’s David Krumholtz. Krumholtz is an upstate gym coach in the city trying to find his wayward wife; he hires questionably capable P.I. Burns to track her down. Margot Bridger returns to produce, but other crew additions prove far more significant–producer Arthur Lubin, cinematographer William Rexer, and composer P.T. Walkley started on Kitty and went on to collaborate with Burns on every subsequent film (to date).
Looking for Kitty is seventy-five minutes of spectacular filmmaking. Burns doesn’t just have the plotting down (the film premiered at ninety-five minutes, which hasn’t been released so there’s twenty minutes cut), he also finally gives himself a great role. Not just a great role, but a great lead performance. Some of it is realizing he and Britton’s chemistry is off the charts, some of it is just rethinking how to approach a film’s budgetary constraints in post-production (Sarah Flack’s editing is essential). At the time, it was easily Burns’s best film and signs of something special to come.
Like all post–2000 Burns films, I haven’t really ever heard of anyone else seeing Looking for Kitty. The DVD box art is terrible, the short run time is concerning. KittyIt deserves a reputation and availability. I only got around to seeing it because I wanted to tease my wife about her Krumholtz crush during “Numb3rs”’s run. Even though Burns made a couple more excellent films after Looking for Kitty, it’s a singular achievement in his filmography. The innovative brevity is all Kitty’s own. Burns never repeats his successes (just his failures).
Of course, Burns follows up that innovative narrative work with some of his least creative work: The Groomsmen. The Groomsmen is about a guy getting married (Burns) and all his thirty-something male friends who are either married, divorced, or somewhere in between, and how they realize they need to grow up. Burns is the groom. The friends are all played by male actors whose careers hadn’t been “hot” since the late nineties–John Leguizamo is the gay one, Matthew Lillard is the happily married one (to Shari Albert, returning from Brothers McMullen and getting a small part but more than her cameos in No Looking Back and Looking for Kitty), Jay Mohr is the obnoxious one, Daniel Logue is the one with the failing marriage (to Heather Burns, no relation). Brittany Murphy’s back from Sidewalks. She’s barely present, playing Burns’s wife-to-be. Hijinks, male bonding, personal growth ensue.
The Groomsmen is a weak comedy. Burns doesn’t have enough material for anyone (Lillard basically just wishes people were better friends to one another), least of all himself. His direction is boring, the cinematography (from Rexer) is flat; Groomsmen is a sitcom in search of situations and comedy. As an actor, Burns doesn’t do much (or have much to do) and as a director… well, at least he gets decent performances out of some of the cast. Including Logue, which I didn’t believe was possible before seeing Groomsmen.
Besides being an exceptional disappointment after Looking for Kitty, The Groomsmen doesn’t really have many distinctive, lasting features. It’s readily available (still in print on DVD, no blu-ray–thank goodness because it’d look awful–lots of streaming options), but I’d certainly never recommend anyone track it down. It’s a waste of its cast. Even though it’s not an accurate summation of Burns’s filmmaking faults, it sure seems like it could be one. It’s not though. It’s just a weakly written, disinterestedly directed bland thirtysomething white guy comedy.
But then comes Purple Violets. It’s back in Manhattan–after Groomsmen’s City Island, Bronx setting–with Selma Blair as an aspiring novelist who runs into old boyfriend Patrick Wilson. Blair’s best friends with Debra Messing, who dated Burns (giving himself not just not the lead, but not even the romantic lead) in college. Burns is best friends with Wilson and still enamored with Messing. While there are still subplots and story lines for the supporting cast, Blair’s the protagonist (the first time Burns has had a definite protagonist since Ash Wednesday and his first female one since No Looking Back). Margot Bridger returns to produce (her last collaboration with Burns). Also back are supporting cast members Dennis Farina and Max Baker (who appeared in Looking for Kitty and becomes a regular supporting player after Violets). And Logue, of course. Logue is back. Purple Violets was also the first feature film released direct-to-iTunes.
Purple Violets is great. Burns’s writing, his direction, William Rexer’s photography, P.T. Walkley’s music, all great. But it’s Blair’s movie and it’s Blair’s show. She makes it happen. All the acting is excellent (including Burns in his smaller role). Logue is playing a British guy, which should be terrible but is instead fantastic. Purple Violets opens strong and just keeps going. It’s Burns’s most wholly ambitious work when it comes to characters; he’s as overly meticulous on the pacing, both visual and narrative. Purple Violets is a leaps and bounds comeback after Groomsmen.
Even though Purple Violets ostensibly had the weight of that iTunes Store exclusivity behind it… it took me four years to get around to watching the movie. Digital-only, watching at home, an opening weekend event it was not. The film soon got a weak DVD release (possibly the first Burns home video release without an audio commentary track); it hasn’t had a blu-ray release and isn’t available for streaming purchase or rental. Not even through iTunes. Purple Violets lack of recognition is simultaneously perplexing and infuriating. The whole iTunes exclusivity thing seems like it was a big mistake; though it’s not like Selma Blair’s ever gets acting credit. Purple Violets is cursed, apparently, even thought it’s phenomenal.
After a three-year break–his longest since Sidewalks of New York–Burns returned in 2010 with Nice Guy Johnny, kicking off the last phase of his directing career. William Rexer isn’t just photographing, he’s now producing alongside Burns and Aaron Lubin; P.T. Walkley is back on music. Editor Janet Gaynor joins the team–she’ll edit Johnny and Burns’s two subsequent, final films. Nice Guy Johnny stars Matt Bush as an idealistic young man with an overbearing fiancée who ends up meeting free spirit Kerry Bishé while hanging out in the Hamptons. So technically back to Long Island, but not really. Burns takes a supporting role as Bush’s uncle. Max Baker is back, along with Callie Thorne (who had a small part in Sidewalks).
There’s excellent acting from Bush and Bishé, there’s beautiful direction, there’s great music and photography. But there’s also not much of a script. When the film works, it works. When it doesn’t, it’s too slight. In the end, there’s more slightness than depth–albeit with occasional great depth (usually thanks to the leads, especially Bishé). Johnny is too short and Burns rushes it way too much. He and Rexer technically rock it, but the script’s not there.
I remember Nice Guy Johnny had a great trailer. After some film festivals, it went straight to DVD and streaming. No blu-ray, but it’s still available streaming and in HD so people can see it. It’s a strange misfire from Burns in its not a failure, it’s just nowhere near successful enough. Instead, it’s just sort of there.
Burns’s next film was a return to the couples romantic comedy form–Newlyweds has newlyweds Burns and Caitlin FitzGerald going through a rough patch when his long lost little sister, Kerry Bishé, shows up in Manhattan. There’s also drama with FitzGerald’s sister and her husband. It’s like a smaller scale Sidewalks of New York, complete with the characters speaking into the camera in interview.
It’s also terrible. It’s sort of not, because Burns gets great performances out of the actors, but can’t make a movie out of what they’ve shot. For instance, Max Baker is back and he’s terrible. So bad I thought he was doing a terrible British accent and Baker is, in fact, British. In terms of using genial misogyny to get a joke across, it calls back to She’s the One. Except Newlyweds isn’t funny. It’s not a funny movie. It’s this dramatic, miserable, mean-spirited look at the lives of obnoxious New Yorkers. Burns doesn’t bother giving the characters depth and then can’t navigate their shallowness. It’s annoying.
Newlyweds is another Burns movie I’ve never heard about anyone seeing. Indie movies like Newlyweds don’t get talked about a lot, which sucks for some of them. But the less said or thought about Newlyweds the better. There’s something about Burns’s failures. They’re embarrassing because they imply he’s so wrong-headed about something he couldn’t possibly be intentionally doing something well. Mostly as a writer, but also as an actor in the early days. Newlyweds should be forgotten. It doesn’t need to be preserved for posterity. It can be lost. So, of course, it’s still readily available to stream.
For Burns’s next film–and his last one to date–he brought back all his best actors. The Fitzgerald Family Christmas brings back Mike McGlone and Connie Britton from Brothers McMullen–McGlone’s first time back since She’s the One–Heather Burns from Groomsmen, and then all his final phase regulars–Kerry Bishé, Marsha Dietlin, Caitlin FitzGerald. And he does a Christmas dramatic comedy with a huge cast and P.T. Walkley adapting Christmas songs into the score.
Burns and William Rexer shoot Fitzgerald Family Christmas in Panavision (or Panavision aspect), which is a first for Burns. Like how well his dialogue works, Burns’s Panavision composition is frustratingly good–almost showy. Burns exhibits a confidence he hasn’t earned or visibly developed in his filmmaking. There’s some great writing, some great acting, some beautiful photography. Fitzgerald’s great.
I am an unabashed Fitzgerald Family Christmas fan. I saw it as soon as I could rent it on iTunes. I bought the blu-ray; I didn’t go see it in the limited theatrical it had. I thought about it though. Burns finally paid off and there was no one there to see it. Fitzgerald Family Christmas does have some kind of a popularity. I don’t think I’d call it a reputation exactly, but it has a popularity. At least based on Burns’s Twitter. It’s streaming, it’s on disc. It’s out there. Maybe someday it’ll get its due.
Right after Purple Violets. And Looking for Kitty. And No Looking Back. And Brothers McMullen. Almost Sidewalks of New York, but no.
Burns’s successes irregularly litter his filmography. The odd numbers are better for a while, then the even, then the odd. I’m not sure I’m actually looking forward to whatever he does next–he hasn’t made a film since Fitzgerald, though he did write and direct the ten episodes TV show, “Public Morals” for TV (I’ve watched the first episode and nothing further). But whatever he does, I know I’ll see it. And it’ll either be good or bad. It might be mediocre but probably not. And if it’s bad, chances are the next one after will be good.