In August, as I wrapped my top 10 directors of all time, I decided to tag on Edward Burns as an honorable mention. I admitted upfront that his inclusion on that list may seem drastic, as there were so many more prominent and notable filmmakers left off, but if I’m being absolutely truthful, no director influences me more as a filmmaker than Edward Burns.
The man makes movies for that reason alone: to make movies. He isn’t worried about money or fame – he writes, produces, and stars in all of his films because that is the best way he can think to express himself. If that’s not inspiring, then I don’t really know what is.
Looking over his filmography, most of his body of work is made up of movies I typically wouldn’t enjoy. Yet I am taken with all of them. There are a few reasons for this, the primary one being: Edward Burns shows that anyone with talent and the drive to make it, can do just that.
Burns famously handed a VHS copy of his first film, an honest tale about three brothers struggling to keep their Long Island romances afloat, to Robert Redford in an elevator. Redford wasn’t miffed by this, as it did (and continues to) happen to him all the time. But for whatever reason, he said screw it, popped the VHS in, and was marveled by The Brothers McMullen. Redford placed the film in his Sundance Film Festival, where it won festival’s highest honor. And the rest, as they say, is history.
That paragraph wasn’t much in the way of film criticism, but let me just say, if it’s good enough for Redford, it’s good enough for me. Many continue to call The Brothers McMullen Burns’ best film to date. That’s a tough call. What it is, however, is an honest examination of contemporary love. There isn’t a single part of it that doesn’t work. And work well. A-
She’s the One (1996)
A few days after cab driver Mickey (Burns), hits it off with a fare he’s picked up (Maxine Bahns), they elect to secretly wed and ask questions later. This infuriates Mickey’s Wall Street yuppie of a brother, Francis (Mike McGlone), simply because Francis can’t stand to see his brother find true love so easily. So, like many of Burns’ best films, She’s the One is simply about the way love affects whatever male characters Burns has opted to bring to life.
This is easily one of my favorite Burns flicks, because, more so than McMullen, it nails the humor of love so expertly. Francis, for example, is such a wondrously repressed hard ass, the kind of guy who steps out on the wife who adores him (played by Jennifer Aniston) with a woman who continually emasculates him (that would be Cameron Diaz). As fine a film as Burns as has ever made. A
No Looking Back (1998)
Stepping into serious dramatics, No Looking Back is a slightly muddled dramedy about a small-town woman dreaming of bigger and better things. Claudia (Lauren Holly) wants something more. Although she appears to be happy with her loyal boyfriend, Michael (Jon Bon Jovi), her world is sent into a tailspin when her first love, Charlie (Burns) strolls back into town with no intention of leaving.
I’m probably one of the few people who thinks No Looking Back works so well. Sure, the film spends a little too much time focusing on the doomed relationship between Claudia and Michael, but at its core, No Looking Back is a movie made by a guy who clearly knows what heartbreak is. Frank and real, for better or worse. B+
Sidewalks of New York (2001)
Before this film, Burns’ work had hinted at his affection for Woody Allen’s films, but with Sidewalks of New York, he made all too clear that Allen is the man who most inspires him.
The movie is, essentially, a two-hour ode to Allen’s best comedic films. Opting for the raw style of Husbands and Wives, Sidewalks of New York has a handful of characters share their stories directly with the audience, in between moments of sincere voyeurism. People meet, break up, fall in love, reconnect, fall out, all for the sake of authentic New York love story(ies). Any fan of Woody Allen will appreciate Burns’ admitted amateurish approach to this material. As worthy an ode to Allen’s work as has ever been attempted. A-
Ash Wednesday (2002)
Probably the most plot driven of Burns’ films, Ash Wednesday is set in Hell’s Kitchen, 1983. Francis Sullivan (Edward Burns) is displeased by incessant rumors that his deceased younger brother, Sean (Elijah Wood), has somehow reappeared. Years earlier, Sean whacked a member of the Irish mob, and was swiftly taken out. If he has resurfaced, there are many gangsters who want in on Sean’s blood.
This being a Burns film, love conquers (or is at least the motivator for) all. Sean has indeed come back for his love, Grace (Rosario Dawson), and isn’t all too cautious about who knows. Honestly, it’s no coincidence that, because this is Burns’ most plot-heavy film, it is also one of his weakest. Good, certainly, but far from great. B-
Looking for Kitty (2004)
Another plot-dependent film, Looking for Kitty tells the story of a private detective hired to find a missing wife. Jack (Burns) is good at what he does, but with Abe’s flimsy story, the two are damn near incapable of tracking Abe’s fleeting wife down. Despite this, they cruise the streets of downtown Manhattan, watching and waiting for Kitty to appear.
Here’s the thing: Looking for Kitty contains one of Burns’ most realized characters in Jack. The movie spends a lot of time focusing on Jack’s inner torment – alone in his house, or pathetically asking his next-door neighbor for a night of comfort. Jack could quite easily sustain the film, but instead, Burns focuses on the not-nearly-as-interesting missing wife farce. Kind of a shame. C+
The Groomsmen (2006)
The boys are back in town as Paulie (Burns) plans to soon marry his pregnant girlfriend, Sue (Brittany Murphy). Set on City Island, New York, most every man in Paulie’s life functions as a plot device to articulate Paulie’s inner feelings. His brother, Jimbo, acts as the voice of refusal. Bar owner, Dez, is the antitheses, supplying the family-makes-it-worth-it confidence. While friends, T.C. and Mike, act as sit ins for Paulie’s compassion and angst, respectively.
For most any other film, those past few sentences would act as harsh criticism for a movie trying so hard to hide its obvious narrative “tricks.” But, somehow, Burns makes The Groomsmen work. It isn’t a movie you’re likely to remember years after seeing it, but it is a completely enjoyable hour and a half. No question. B
Purple Violets (2007)
Patti (Selma Blair) wants more. As she gets older, she feels that her marriage and job are holding her back from writing the good write. The reemergence of her first love, Brian (Patrick Wilson), only enhances Patti’s feelings of what could have been. She constantly shares her problems with her best friend, Kate (Debra Messing), who herself is upset that her old flame, Michael (Burns) has come back into her life.
So, Brian loves Patti and Michael loves Kate, while Patti confides in Kate and Michael confides in Brian. Really, I’m making it sound more complicated than it is, because Purple Violets is nothing more than an earnest, four-character study of lost love. However, “nothing more,” in this case, acts as enough and then some. It should be noted that this film contains arguably my favorite ending to any Burns movie. It’s simply perfect. A-
Nice Guy Johnny (2010)
I always find it interesting when directors share which of their films is their personal favorite. Burns continues to hail Sidewalks of New York as the best film he’s made, with Nice Guy Johnny a close second. The interesting part is that I consider this film to be one of Burns’ less-inspired efforts, but hell, who am I to say?
In the film, Johnny Rizzo (played by Matt Bush) is days away from marrying the bitch of his dreams. The kind of gal who is hot, rich and demands that Johnny be the man she wants him to be. Upon visiting his Uncle Terry (Burns) in New York, Johnny is coerced into spending a weekend in the Hamptons with Terry and whatever lady friends happen to filter in and out, including young spitfire, Brooke (Kerry Bishé).
On the surface, Nice Guy Johnny is nothing more than a phoned-in romcom (with a perfect douchebag performance by Burns). Yet still, I find myself inexplicably drawn to it. B
The evolution of Newlyweds is, at this point, about as noted as the success of The Brothers McMullen. Burns shot Newlyweds for $9,000 ($5,000 for actors, $2,000 for craft services, $2,000 for insurance) in his TriBeCa neighborhood with frequent collaborators. He filmed it with the consumer-grade Canon 5D Mark II camera, and, in my humble opinion, made as fine an independent romantic dramedy as we’ve had in the past decade.
Everything about the film, which chronicles the hardships a happily married couple face when a free-loading estranged sister comes into the mix, works faultlessly. Its tired narrative (Burns goes back to the Sidewalks of New York shtick) is marvelously given new life via Burns’ witty script, and the actors’ effortless conviction.
I love the hell out of Newlyweds. It’s smart, engrossing, and, in short, the finest film Burns has ever made. I recommend that you watch it by any means necessary. A
Doggy Bags (2012)
Doggy Bags is a short film Burns made and entered into the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival, simply because he could. In the flick, a young fella (Nice Guy Johnny star Matt Bush), becomes increasingly weary as to why the girl he’s dating (played by the hysterical Daniella Pineda, who Burns discovered on YouTube) insists on ordering shitloads of food (and getting some to go), whenever they dine out. The answer is simple and hilarious. Basically, Doggy Bags is a perfectly silly way to spend 14 minutes. B
The Fitzgerald Family Christmas (2012)
Burns’ latest flick looks like something that belongs on the Lifetime network, and you know what… I’ll be the first in line.
The Brothers McMullen
She’s the One
Sidewalks of New York
No Looking Back
Nice Guy Johnny
Looking for Kitty
Just Plain Bad
Previous Director Profiles include:
Paul Thomas Anderson
the Coen Brothers
Paul Thomas Anderson
the Coen Brothers