No more Mr. Nice Judge Patrick Bromley.
A film by Edward Burns.
What an interesting career Edward Burns has had. His first film, The Brothers McMullen, won the 1995 Grand Jury Prize (somewhat controversially) at Sundance and went on to gross a whopping $10 million on a reported $28,000 budget. Burns became the golden boy of Hollywood during the peak of the studio-indie crossover, and was even taken under the wing of Mr. Sundance himself, Robert Redford, for his 1996 follow-up She's the One. That movie (somewhat unfairly) suggested Burns was just a one-trick pony, and Hollywood's goodwill towards the filmmaker quickly dried up. His next film, a staid and dull drama starring then-girlfriend Lauren Holly called No Looking Back, was barely released and grossed only $250,000—roughly 1/40 of his debut. He continued to act in popular movies (including 15 Minutes, 27 Dresses and, most notably, in Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan) and bounced back a little with 2001's Sidewalks of New York, arguably his best and most commercial movie, but for the most part Burns has been relegated to small, talky independent films that receive very limited theatrical releases, if at all. He's experimented a little with distribution here and there, like when his 2007 romantic drama Purple Violets became the first film released directly as an iTunes download, but for the most part he's stuck to the little niche he's carved out for himself. It may not be at Robert Redford's side, but it's not such a terrible place to be.
Burns' latest, Nice Guy Johnny, made its debut at the Tribeca Film Festival before arriving on DVD. It stars Matt Bush (Adventureland) as the titular Johnny, a California-based sports radio host engaged to marry his college girlfriend (Anna Wood, Brothers and Sisters). Unhappy with his direction in life, his betrothed sets Johnny up with a job interview for a cardboard company based in New York. He flies out and meets up with his Uncle Terry (Burns), a womanizer with and endless amount of advice on how a young guy like Johnny should be living his life. Johnny also meets Brooke (Kerry Bishé, Scrubs), a free-spirited and gorgeous blonde who calls his impending marriage into question. Should Johnny follow his heart? Or should he once again just be a nice guy?
Let's get one thing straight: Nice Guy Johnny is not a bad movie. It's just, like a lot of Burns' movies, unremarkable. It's another of the writer/director's vanilla relationship comedies—and I call them "comedies" despite the fact that his films are never really all that funny. They're pleasant and difficult to dislike (not his dramas, like No Looking Back and the even more dreadfully dull Ash Wednesday), but never really make me laugh. Burns clearly admires Woody Allen, but lacks his gift for things like dialogue and creative storytelling and a knack for directing actors (no one has given their worst performance in an Ed Burns movie, but no one has given their best, either). It doesn't help that he essentially makes the same movie over and over again: a guy is confused in his relationship and wants to do the right thing, ignoring the advice of a big-talking, dick-swinging mentor (Burns in McMullen, Mike McGlone in She's the One, Dennis Farina in Sidewalks of New York) and often pursuing a confident, self-assured and slightly unattainable female (Maxine Bahns in McMullen and She's the One, Rosario Dawson in Sidewalks of New York, Debra Messing in Purple Violets). There's very little in Nice Guy Johnny that anyone who's seen one of Burns' other movies won't recognize. In that way, his films are a bit like indie romcom comfort food—generic, familiar, but they go down easy.
If there's one reason to see Nice Guy Johnny—beyond Burns' amiable performance (he's good at playing the same character he plays in all of his own movies, probably he writes dialogue for his own voice)—is the performance of Kerry Bishé. Though Burns has always gravitated towards movies about men with commitment issues, he's also written some good female roles in the past, and Bishé's Brooke can be added to that list. Sure, she's statuesque and beautiful, but also earthy and accessible. Bishé knows how to ground this kind of part to avoid it turning into what Nathan Rabin coined the "manic pixie dream girl," which as written by Burns it might have easily become. Instead, she plays a real person and steals the film away from star Matt Bush, who, to be honest, didn't have that firm a grasp on the thing to begin with. He's not bad, but doesn't seem to have the charisma or gravity to carry his own film. Like a lot of Burns' stuff, he's too bland at the center.
Nice Guy Johnny arrives on DVD courtesy of FilmBuff, presented in its original widescreen aspect ratio and enhanced for anamorphic playback. There's not much to the movie from a visual standpoint, but the DVD does a fair job in that department; the image is a bit soft and skin tones lean a little greenish (the movie looks to have been shot in HD video), but overall it's fine. The 5.1 audio track does an acceptable job handling Burns' dialogue and the movie's many on-the-nose musical cues. Like on all his DVDs, Burns sits down to record a commentary track for the film, and it's maybe the best thing about the whole disc. He's always and engaging and energetic speaker (which you might not expect given the often slack pace of his movies), and Burns consistently gears his commentaries towards young and would-be filmmakers. He's full of stories and tips on how to make low-budget independent movies and seems to genuinely want to inspire new directors; it's unfortunate, then, that his movies can't really do the same. Still, it's another good commentary from a guy who's delivered a bunch of them. Also included are a couple minutes of deleted scenes and some casting footage of Bush and Bishé together.
I appreciate Ed Burns as a filmmaker, not as much for his talents as for his tenacity. I think a lot of other guys in his position would be happy to take paychecks for acting in other peoples' stuff, but Burns continues to crank out small, personal projects not because they're terribly popular or successful, but because he's a filmmaker. I wish I could speak more highly of Nice Guy Johnny, but the audience for Burns' films seems to be shrinking thanks to outings like this one. It inspires mostly indifference.
Recommended only for fans of Burns' previous films.
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