Published March 1, 1998
Edward Burns’s young career as a director has gone from promising (The Brothers McMullin) to flabby (She’s the One) to utterly self-indulgent and silly in his latest and, I hope, last film, No Looking Back. The big idea here is to take that over-familiar and by now thoroughly boring conceit of the 1950s (most recently recycled in Going All the Way), the young man’s coming-of-age by leaving the amiable mindlessness of small town life, and to apply it to a young woman. Of course if you are one of the doctrinaire types who insist on refusing to recognize any difference between men and women you will applaud on principle, but for anyone who still hopes for a bit of plausibility in the movies, the idea of Lauren Holly driving her beat-up old car off onto the great American road, alone, to the strains of Patti Scialfa singing “I’m a Big Girl Now” is just ridiculous
Burns himself plays Charlie, a young man returning home to a seaside small town on Long Island after an absence of three years. He had left after his girlfriend, Claudia (Miss Holly), a waitress, got pregnant. Having persuaded her to get an abortion he had “stayed to make sure everything was OK” and then left to follow his own wandering star. It took him to California where he flopped with a friend for a while, drifted from one job to the next, then decided to try going home again—partly because he still carries a torch for Claudia. But Claudia by this time is living with Charlie’s best friend, Michael (Jon Bon Jovi) and trying to persuade herself that “we got a good thing.” Michael is a decent sort who wants to get married and is indignant at Charlie’s treatment of Claudia years before, so he is naturally meant to be seen as a sap. Claudia and Charlie briefly rekindle their romance, but it only makes her see how unhappy she is with home and work and domesticity.
Burns’s writing and direction, never that tight to begin with, has become intolerably slack, and his acting is an embarrassment. His well publicized affair with Miss Holly while they were making the film, an affair which broke up her marriage to Jim Carrey, seems to have given him the idea of having his character and Miss Holly’s greet each other at every meeting with a knowing smirk, partly to let the audience in on their not-so secret secret and partly to suggest that their characters, who are supposedly ex-lovers separated for three years, cannot forget each other. Burns’s idea of sparkling dialogue is “What’s up with that?” “What’s going on with you?” “Are you OK with that?” “So what are you trying to say?” and other slacker catch-phrases used as conversational gambits between swigs of ever an ever-present bottle of beer. This is intended, presumably, to add an air of authenticity to the proceedings.
Yet it comes across not only as morally squalid but as boring. There is not a single funny line in the picture, which is an indication either of Burns’s incompetence as a writer or of the laughable seriousness with which he takes himself. Morally, there is nothing surprising in the script’s closely adhering to Hollywood orthodoxy which, as we have often had occasion to notice in the past, holds that all human ties and obligations are subject to instant revocation if “happiness” is at issue. A man’s leaving his family, as Claudia’s father has done, or a woman’s aborting her child are unexceptionable acts (Claudia says she “understands” her father’s action), so long as they are done for the sake of happiness. Likewise, a woman and a man cheating on the man’s best friend is not a problem. The worst thing in the world for these cases of arrested moral development is the prospect of taking on what used to be thought of as normal adult responsibilities.