Judge Ben Saylor thinks this film is decidedly lacking in flower power.
A second chance for a first love.
The films of actor-writer-director Edward Burns (The Brothers McMullen) don't really get much in the way of theatrical releases; having lived in the Cleveland area for most of my life, I can't say I've ever seen a Burns film (one he's directed) in theaters, although to be fair, he's been making films since before I had the interest or means to get to area art house theaters.
So it wasn't really surprising to me to read that Burns' latest film, Purple Violets, wasn't getting any theatrical release, and instead was offered as an iTunes download for a few months in 2007. And now, it makes its DVD debut, courtesy of Genius Products.
Facts of the Case
Patti Petalson (Selma Blair, Hellboy II: The Golden Army) isn't happy with how her life is going. A writer who published an acclaimed book years ago, Patti has put her writing on hold and works in real estate. Her husband, a self-absorbed British chef named Chazz (Donal Logue, Ghost Rider), alternately ignores and berates her.
While out for dinner with college friend Kate (Debra Messing, The Starter Wife), Patti becomes reacquainted with Brian (Patrick Wilson, Little Children), an old boyfriend from college who makes a living writing detective novels. His friend, Michael "The Murph" Murphy (Edward Burns, 27 Dresses), dated Kate in college, and is now a recovering alcoholic as well as Brian's attorney. Kate, still nursing hurt feelings over a college incident between her and the Murph, finds herself being pursued by her former lover, and Patti and Brian find themselves revisiting their own past romance.
Mild spoilers to follow
Few filmmakers prove as consistently frustrating to me as Edward Burns. Unlike a lot of people (or at least people I've talked to), I found Burns' performance as the mouthy Reiben in Saving Private Ryan to be one of the more enjoyable elements of that film. When I learned that Burns makes his own movies, I was naturally curious. I sought out and watched Burns' debut, The Brothers McMullen, a charming, authentic-feeling independent film made by a person of talent.
Unfortunately, nearly every film Burns has made since Brothers has more or less been both an experiment to determine the different ways in which the filmmaker can continue to remove himself from his debut film in terms of quality, and a series of (failed) attempts to reach the comic/dramatic heights of Woody Allen. This started with Burns' horrid sophomore picture, She's the One, and resurfaced with 2001's better-but-risible Sidewalks of New York (I missed No Looking Back in between). I haven't seen Ash Wednesday, but Burns did manage to elevate himself somewhat with the low-ambition, low-budget Looking for Kitty, although he shot himself in the foot again with The Groomsmen.
Which brings us to Purple Violets. Eschewing the icky, awkward male bonding of its predecessor, Purple Violets is a largely mature effort that again sees Burns (as he did in The Groomsmen) taking a smaller acting role. While that decision didn't pay off with The Groomsmen (he went too far the other way; his character was woefully underwritten), it works in Purple Violets because he cedes the spotlight to the talented Selma Blair. That Blair's Patti Petalson (a horrible name) is the main character of the film is made explicit in the excellent opening, which shows Patti alone on a beach in the Hamptons. What follows largely concerns Patti finding her way back to success in life (returning to writing after an unfulfilling career in real estate) and love (reuniting with college sweetheart Brian). In Patti, Burns has crafted a strong, sympathetic character, one who is further fleshed out by a quietly affecting turn by Blair. The actress is able to convey Patti's desperation and longing with an economy of facial expressions, and her delivery always jibes with the character's personality.
But Patti doesn't go through her journey of rediscovery on her own, unfortunately. Lest we forget about the guy who wrote and directed the film, Burns has his own subplot wherein he tries to woo the bitter Kate back. With his role as the Murph, Burns again essays the "good guy" role he's played in just about all of his films. He's fine with that kind of role, but it would be nice to see him branch out a bit. Yes, the Murph struggled with alcohol in the past, but now that he's in control of his life, his redemptive quality automatically puts him on a higher plane than Kate, who is painted by Burns as the "wrong" person here because of her (initial) resistance to forgiving her former lover over an incident that happened more than a decade prior. (Do successful New Yorkers really have nothing better to do than nurse silly college grudges?) Ultimately, despite Messing's attempts to infuse her feeble character with some life, Kate can safely be relegated to the collection of throwaway female characters in Edward Burns films.
What is somewhat interesting (or at least interesting enough to merit a short digression) is that despite the Murph's supposed moral superiority, Burns writes the character as someone uninterested in what he deems to be "esoteric" forms of culture. In one amusing moment, he dismisses American Beauty, commenting that he fell asleep before the scene featuring the floating plastic bag. His close-minded approach to high art leads him to not read his friend and client Brian's attempt at literary respectability; like the fans of Brian's detective fiction, the Murph is just not interested. Throughout the film there is never any doubt that Burns is in Brian's corner when it comes to writing what he wants and damn the consequences, so maybe it's a sign of maturity that Burns paints himself as one of the voices of opposition.
Inadvertently, my tangential preceding paragraph has provided a somewhat clumsy segue into a discussion of Brian, the most overtly Woody Allen-esque character in Purple Violets. Wilson plays Brian in the deeply neurotic, harried nature of any number of Allen creations, and while his character never makes me think I'm watching Alvy Singer or Isaac Davis, it's nonetheless oddly fascinating to watch Wilson play such a seemingly unlikely role for the actor. It's particularly entertaining to watch Wilson's scenes with his 20-something girlfriend Bernadette (Elizabeth Reaser, The Family Stone), whom Burns writes as a loud-mouthed, immature moron. Yes, this is another instance of Burns' one-dimensionality in regards to female characters, but in Bernadette's case, it's so over the top that if you're not offended by this caricature you'll probably get a kick out of it.
Because Reaser gets a mention, it seems only fair that other members of the supporting cast get their due. Dennis Farina (Snatch), who appeared in Sidewalks in New York as a jerk friend of Burns' character, here turns up briefly as Patti's jerk real estate boss. But I've saved the best for last with Donal Logue's turn as Chazz Coleman. Burns must have (rightly) intuited that Logue would not have been believable as a haughty chef if he used his native accent; the actor is too well known for schlubby guy's guy roles (like the one he plays, as it happens, in The Groomsmen). Thus for Purple Violets he becomes a limey. Making a judgment on his performance either way seems to me rather pointless; the novelty of watching Logue spout his lines in the accent is present regardless of one's feelings as to its merits.
As I alluded to much, much earlier in my review, Purple Violets shows signs of artistic progression for Burns. The word "signs," however is key, because he's still got a ways to go. Despite his triumph with Patti's characterization, Burns nonetheless throws her into a completely miserable marriage. Chazz is given no redeemable qualities whatsoever, and even though the couple discusses how they each felt when they first met, it's never believable for a second that these two were ever happy together. Conversely, Patti and Brian are so absolutely perfect together that not only is it inconceivable that they ever broke up, but it's a little insulting that Burns throws in some doubt as to whether they will get back together before (of course) reuniting them at the end. This love-conquers-all vibe extends, naturally, to the Murph and Kate, leaving any similarities to 99 percent of Woody Allen's body of work in the dust.
Nonetheless, Burns gets enough right—the character of Patti, all of the scenes between the Murph and Brian, the subplot involving Brian's book—that Purple Violets must be considered one of the stronger works of his career. Its measure of success, no matter how compromised by flat characters and a lazy ending, means nonetheless that I will probably watch whatever Burns comes up with next.
Genius Products' DVD presentation is solid from a technical standpoint. Of the Burns films I've seen, Purple Violets is one of the most visually accomplished, and William Rexer's cinematography is rendered nicely on this transfer. The Dolby 5.1 track isn't anything that'll rattle the dishes (most of the sound is dialogue), but it puts out P.T. Walkley's original music quite nicely.
Where Genius Products does disappoint, however, is in extras. There are absolutely no special features for this disc, not even a trailer, although previews for other titles play before the disc's menu. Granted, this film was so under-the-radar that it wasn't even released theatrically, but Burns generally records commentaries for his films, so I was surprised not to see one for this disc.
While Purple Violets has its share of problems, it's one of Edward Burns' strongest films since his debut, The Brothers McMullen. The relative success of the project makes it all the more disheartening that there are no special features included with Genius Products' DVD of the film.
Burns and co. are not guilty, but Genius Products is sentenced to weed my violet beds.
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