Monday, January 30, 2012

Newlyweds Movie Review: Presented by Director Edward Burns at Huntington Cinema Arts Centre

Edward Burns' newest film was released digitally at the end of December. It is available for digital download here and also on iTunes.

In my years away I’ve missed everything Edward Burns has written and directed in the last decade. I’ve followed his career with some interest because he’s a Long Island film maker and I like supporting my community, but he hasn’t quite lived up to the promise of his first feature The Brothers McMullen. He received a great deal of recognition for that film made on a shoestring budget at a time when I was just getting interested in cinema. His follow up She’s the One showed what he could do with a bigger budget and A-list stars, but he fell backward after that. Sidewalks of New York, released in 2001 was his last film I saw. After that nothing really made a big enough splash that I was enthused enough to seek it out. Recently he’s begun releasing his films on DVD and the Internet to avoid the hassle of distribution and striking film prints. Eschewing the offers the direct studio pictures, he’s come back to the kind of small personal films that he’s passionate about.

His newest film Newlyweds was released in late December simultaneously on DVD and various Internet outlets such as VOD and iTunes. I was lucky enough to attend an event at my local Arts Cinema where Burns was an invited guest for a Q&A and reception following the screening. As an added surprise, he brought along two of his co-stars in the film.

I want to preface my review by saying that despite my lukewarm view of the film overall, it’s difficult to sit down and write anything negative about a film made on a $16K budget after you’ve listened to how it was done, heard tell of the passion and enthusiasm that went into it and after shaking the director’s hand and having a brief conversation with him. But I will do my best to be both objective and charitable because I think he deserves to have an audience for his movies, but I also want to be fair as a critic.

The first thing that struck me about Newlyweds from an opening brunch scene involving the two couples that are central to the story is how similar his characters’ cadence and rhythm of speech is to Woody Allen’s. I recall having a similar reaction to Sidewalks of New York but it’s a style that I think is missing from his first three films. That it calls to mind Allen’s dialogue is probably a sign that Burns is succeeding in his attempt to write the way New Yorkers talk, or at least the way Allen thinks they talk.

The couple of the title are Buzzy and Katie (Burns and Caitlin Fitzgerald). The other couple is older, married for eighteen years and just sent their son off to college. They are Max and Marsha, Katie’s sister, played by Max Baker and Marsha Dietlein. As the young couple just starting out (though both of them are on second marriages), Buzzy and Katie have an optimistic view of the way the strength of their relationship is based on the fact that they hardly ever see each other while one works days and the other nights. Max and Marsha, on the other hand, have reached a point well beyond the elation of fresh marriage and past the stasis of feeling settled. Now they have disdain for one another, although Burns’ screenplay is slightly one-sided in presenting Marsha as a judgmental and spiteful person whom Max has tired of. Marsha also has no love for Buzzy, believing all men to be liars, a mantra she continually injects into conversations with her sister.

The catalyst for upheaval is Buzzy’s half sister Linda (Kerry Bishé), a free-spirited and unsettled young woman who drops in from California to stay with them for an unspecified period of time. Linda is full of passion and energy. She loves hard and she falls hard. She came to New York chasing Miles (Johnny Solo), an old flame who is also newly married. When Linda brings a strange man home to Buzzy’s apartment in the middle of the night, he and Katie are perturbed, to put it mildly.

Because Katie and Buzzy have complete honesty and openness as the foundation of their marriage – a method of trust building that strikes Linda as “a really bad idea” – she finds the situation impossible. She doesn’t want Linda in her house (there are other more minor mitigating factors including the disappearance of a very expensive designer coat), but recognizes how understanding Buzzy is when it comes to both Marsha and Katie’s ex-husband Dara (Dara Coleman), a pompous actor who often comes round asking for money to offset his dire financial situation, a fact conveniently ignored when it comes to showing off what must be a very expensive SoHo loft that he lives in.

I’ve always liked and enjoyed Edward Burns’ writing style when it comes to dialogue. He’s not afraid to let his characters sound natural, more or less the way real people talk. It doesn’t have the woodenness of dialogue that exists to advance the plot and he doesn’t strive for a stylized kind of hyper-real dialogue the way David Mamet or that other Long Island filmmaker Hal Hartley. Mamet and Hartley are both writers I admire a great deal, but Burns plays to his own strengths. And truthfully, I laughed quite a lot. There are some very funny moments and the actors inhabit their characters so well thanks to the relaxed, collaborative and improvisational approach Burns took to the film.

I just wish he had the storytelling and filmmaking skills to match his ear for New York. Like Sidewalks of New York, this latest film is shot in a faux-documentary style using handheld cameras a la Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives (an influence cited specifically by Burns when I asked him about it) and jump cuts that both eliminate the unnecessary bits and help land a joke. There’s also the stylistic element of having the characters directly address the camera at the end of most scenes as if answering a documentarian’s questions. Obviously we’re not meant to view Newlyweds as if it’s a fictional documentary, but then there are these breaks that disrupt the flow. It strikes me as a lazy and artificial storytelling device that allows us to know what’s going on inside the characters’ heads without doing the heavy lifting of infusing it into the story itself.

One of the storytelling faults I found with Newlyweds is a problem I’ve encountered with his other relationship comedies – he doesn’t ever get very far beyond the superficial issues that plague people in relationships and marriages. There are amusing motifs like discussions about the absence of oral sex once the ring is on the finger – an injustice Max seeks to rectify within twelve hours of asking for a divorce – and the presence of universalities like the way the little annoyances are what build over time to destroy long-term partnerships. Burns rarely goes farther than observing that these problems exist. I suppose he’s okay with that because it doesn’t ever really seem like he’s trying to take it to the next level, but this time it had the effect of leaving me wanting more. Perhaps that says more about me than the film.

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