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Third-Degree Burns

The flimsiest hustle in movie promotion today is that independent films are starved for mainstream attention. The truth is that such films often have an open field when it comes to big-city media. Major studios are usually unable to deliver a finished print of a would-be blockbuster until two or three weeks before its opening date, killing the chance for coverage in glossy magazines that have a two- or three-month lead time. By contrast, independent or boutique-company films that get a buzz going at festivals in the fall or winter can be garlanded with praise in the spring and summer in publications that range from Harper's Bazaar, GQ, and Esquire to Details and Spin. If the moviemaker behind such an indie is tall and photogenic and acts as well as writes and directs -- like John Sayles (whose Men With Guns opened earlier this year) or Edward Burns (an avowed Sayles fan, whose new No Looking Back opens Friday) -- then they may develop minicults of personality.

Assignment editors and art-house patrons never tire of hearing about how these guys made a complete film on a budget that couldn't have paid for an Evian break on Titanic. By the time their films are released, they come equipped with halos so bright that they can blind viewers. In 1997 some of the best and most ambitious studio work, such as Steven Spielberg's Amistad and Jim Sheridan's The Boxer, couldn't score the critical kudos and admiring coverage earned by Peter Cattaneo and his film The Full Monty. That affable, negligible movie rode waves of festival acclaim -- from Edinburgh and Turin -- all the way to the Oscars.

In recent years probably no indie tyro has had a bigger, longer lucky streak than Burns. His break came in 1995 when he won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize for his first movie The Brothers McMullen. Watching this amateurish film on opening night of the 1995 San Francisco Film Festival, I was astonished that it made any festival's cut; when it went on to become a $10 million art-house success, I was floored. To me Burns' sketch of Long Island Irish Catholic men with women-troubles hardly registered as a movie. It played like a workshop production on a threadbare regional stage, and it was stultifyingly banal. Still, Burns was hailed for dialogue that at best could have fit into a high-toned sitcom: "Hey, I like being a pessimist -- it makes it easier to deal with my inevitable failure." He followed McMullen in 1996 with She's the One, a variation on many of the same theatrical cliches: a good-looking poetic soul who's skittish about commitment (played in both pictures by Burns himself); a confused, straying husband; and the brotherly competition that sometimes goes into finding Ms. McRight.

But the lift he got from McMullen trailed off with the release of She's the One, and it may vanish entirely with No Looking Back. About the only booster left to predict that it will prove him to be "more than a flash in the Sundance pan" is an anonymous capsule reviewer in Premiere magazine.

No Looking Back has been touted as a stretch for Burns because it isn't romantic or comic, and because it is his first woman-centered film. Lauren Holly takes on the part that usually goes to Burns -- the dissatisfied dreamer. Burns, instead, plays the handsome heel Charlie, who hurt her once but wants her back. This is less a stretch than a contraction: the dregs of Burnsiana, done in drag.

At the start Holly's character, Claudia, a thirtysomething waitress living in her seaside working-class hometown (the movie was shot in Rockaway Beach, N.Y.), is on the marriage track with a steady fellow named Michael (Jon Bon Jovi). Then feckless grease monkey Charlie returns from a stint in California and rouses her slumbering dreams of true love and escape. Burns conceives Charlie as a sleazy small-town charmer who's as much of a potential millstone as the limited Michael; he'll do anything to manipulate Claudia back into his bed. We're meant to root for Claudia to see through both guys and stand on her own two feet. She is woman, hear her roar.

But Claudia is too vague and slippery to carry the weight of feminist heroinism. Like a prefeminist stereotype, she's a totally reactive personality; she defines herself only in opposition, whether to possessive men, conventional friends, a smart-mouthed, love-starved, stay-at-home sister (Connie Britton), or a long-suffering mother (Blythe Danner) who learns to accept that her husband has walked out on them for good. Of course we're supposed to recognize that Claudia is most like her wandering dad. Unfortunately Burns fails to devise scenes that would depict Claudia as a born rambler rather than a victim and a malcontent. She is woman, hear her whine. (And I do mean whine: Both Holly and Burns have slender, monotonous voices. You begin to hunger for the heartier tones of Bon Jovi or the throatier ones of Danner.) And setting up an off-screen father as the psychological key to Claudia is the dramatic equivalent of building a legal case on hearsay evidence.

In the introduction to his collected screenplays (Hyperion, 1997), Burns says that his first goal as a filmmaker was to "take a look at what it was like to grow up Irish Catholic in America." If No Looking Back is any indication, when the people he knows get into their thirties they shed many of their Irish Catholic attributes, especially their anxieties over sex and damnation. What Burns wallows in here is a simultaneously nostalgic and condescending vision of a run-down East Coast prole town. On the positive side, the presence of Bruce Springsteen songs like "I'm on Fire" on the soundtrack suggests an elemental vitality to the close-knit, desperate community, where men eek out an existence with low-paying jobs, and women keep their eyes peeled for the slightest shift in the courting scene.

But in Claudia's view, the whole town is one big dead end. The clearest statement of what she wants, or at least what she doesn't, comes when she tells Michael she'd rather go to "a nice restaurant" in the city than to his mother's house for a big meal: "Because we haven't left this town to do anything in over a year. It would be nice to see something other than the same people and the same streets. Besides, every time we go over to your mother's, you and your brothers sit in the living room and watch football, and your mother and sister trap me in the kitchen and ask when we are going to get married."

There's no dishonor in being a good waitress, but Claudia feels that it would be a living death to grow old as one. And there's no indication she could do anything else. Her distance from an older waitress made me yearn for the inspirational sisterhood-is-wonderful diner scenes in Martin Scorsese's peppy Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1975). Burns plays the class card, all right, but with an upwardly mobile strategy. And he deals it from the bottom of the deck.

No Looking Back.
Directed and written by Edward Burns. Starring Edward Burns, Lauren Holly, and Jon Bon Jovi.

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Michael Sragow

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