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January 22, 2009 |

By Ted Boynton | Boozehound Cinephile | January 22, 2009 |

Pop Culture Item Consumed: No Looking Back, Edward Burns’ 1998 film about a New Jersey waitress whose old flame, a career ne’er-do-well played by Burns, returns home and disrupts his former girlfriend’s weak-coffee estimation of domestic bliss. No Looking Back is an exercise in self-torture I occasionally inflict upon myself for reasons that are not completely clear but have something to do with my equally inexplicable fascination with Edward Burns. This film should not appeal to me, given that (a) its primary protagonist, Lauren Holly, is a terrible, unlikeable actor, (b) its secondary protagonist, the aforementioned Burns, plays to his self-congratulatory strength as a wise-cracking, tough-guy outsider, and (c) the formulaic bad boy/forbidden love angle is about as overworked as Shepard Fairey’s publicist circa “right now.”

(Seriously, if I see one more Shepard Fairey story/Shepard Fairey interview/adaptation of Shepard Fairey’s portrait of Obama, I’m going to bust a cap in someone’s ass. Someone completely defenseless and non-threatening, but still: a cap. Shepard Fairey, you’re on notice. No more self-deprecating NPR interviews.)

(Ed.: /snickers)

Beverage Consumed: The truly classic Old Fashioned, a Pantheon Cocktail that’s not only delicious but will help you get your schwerve on and is fun to make because it involves “muddling,” which I like to think of as the heavy petting of cocktail preparation. I’m referring, of course, to the Old Fashioned, yet another fine use for bourbon that qualifies for the Pantheon. To reiterate, Ted’s Pantheon Cocktail Theory holds that the classics consist of no more than four ingredients, excluding plain water or ice but including soda or garnish, and require no preparation more complex than slicing fruit or grating citrus. To prepare an Old Fashioned, you’ll need a couple of sugar cubes, good bourbon, Angostura bitters and maraschino cherries. Ordinary sugar works too, it’s just not as fun, as will become clear in a moment. Peychaud’s bitters may be substituted for Angustura, if you are an absolute heathen and enjoy your mother’s suffering.

A word about bitters: Concentrated blends of herbs, fruits, and even tree bark (I’m not kidding), bitters are the spice of the cocktail world, the descendants of the digestifs made from all kinds of fermented substances in the 19th century and consumed for their supposed health benefits. I know they always make me feel healthier, though it’s probably their 80-proof companion doing the heavy lifting. In any event, if you’re serious about a home bar, you absolutely must stock bitters of at least one variety — a bar without bitters is like a kitchen without pepper. I think Cicero said that. Angostura bitters, with their warm, clovey flavor, are essential, but citrus bitters are also desirable if your taste runs toward orangey drinks, such as the Abbey: orange juice, gin, and citrus bitters.

To prepare an Old Fashioned, place the sugar cubes in a tumbler, then sprinkle several healthy drops of bitters over them. Be judicious here, because heavy bitters deliver a strong flavor. That’s fine as long as you’re sure you like bitters, but once it’s in there you can’t really go back. As the sugar begins to dissolve, lightly mash the sugar cubes with a spoon or bar stirrer. (You can see why the sugar cubes are a little more theatrical than ordinary sugar.) Add a decent pour of bourbon, maybe three shots from a standard 1.5-ounce shot glass (i.e., a little more than four ounces). Stir the mixture well to blend the sugar and bitters, then add several ice cubes and stir briskly to chill. Garnish with as many maraschino cherries as you like — they give a subtle sweet hint and are tasty to pluck out and eat with bourbon on them — and it’s fine to spill a little of the juice from the cherry bottle into the drink as well, which steers the drink more toward the sweet cherry flavor if that’s your thing. I find that letting the drink sit for a minute or two before imbibing allows the ice to begin melting, which helps bring all the flavors together.

If you want to liven things up for a party or impress your friends (assuming they are easily impressed), add an orange slice to the garnish. This is how most bars will serve you an Old Fashioned, though it takes you out of the Pantheon because you’re now up to five ingredients. And you don’t want to be out of the Pantheon in this weather.

Summary of Action: Edward Burns the film-maker has become a somewhat polarizing figure in much the same way as Kevin Smith. Both have a distinctive, signature style, and people either like that style or don’t, but when they don’t, they really, really don’t. Burns the actor produces a similar effect, with his borderline-whiny voice and borderline-surly facial expression. Although he’s begun to test my patience by working in terrible films such as One Missed Call (monstrous cell phones) and 27 Dresses (monstrous bridesmaid), his work over the years in both his own and other people’s films has generally been satisfying. His range as an actor is very limited, but he’s good within that range and seems pretty likeable in a wiseass sort of way.

No Looking Back, Burns’ third film, followed his well-received micro-budget indie The Brothers McMullen and the more polished She’s the One, essentially a studio version of his first outing. In No Looking Back, Burns returned to his default role, the surly but likeable underachiever, a self-designated outcast who half-asses his way through life while trying figure out what he wants. As the film begins, inscrutable loner Charlie Ryan (Burns) returns to his New Jersey roots after a long, self-imposed banishment. Charlie’s dire, blue collar hometown is straight out of a Bruce Springsteen song about dying industrial cities, and most of Charlie’s friends never made it out, including old flame Claudia (Lauren Holly), a waitress at the local greasy spoon. During Charlie’s exile, Claudia has taken up with Charlie’s former best friend Michael (Jon Bon Jovi), moving in with Michael but putting off marriage in vague anticipation of finding a more satisfying life.

Like Charlie, Claudia has aspirations beyond working the same dreary jobs and scratching out the same grey lives as their parents. Michael, on the other hand, wants nothing more than to marry Claudia, settle down, and raise some kids in the same place he grew up. Michael is a classic Good Guy. Michael is honest and steady and reliable. Michael is not ambitious or particularly soulful. Michael loves Claudia and is utterly devoted to her. Michael may as well paint a big bull’s-eye on his hopes.

When Charlie returns, he assures Michael that there are no hard feelings over Claudia and that Charlie is just passing through, with no motives other than re-connecting with his old haunts. Soon enough, however, Charlie starts working part-time as a mechanic and hanging out at the same old bar where Michael and their circle of friends pound whiskey and beer every night after work. It isn’t long before Charlie begins visiting Claudia at the diner, and if you’ve ever been to the movies before, you probably know where this is headed.

That formulaic nature is really the reason I feel like I should hate, hate, hate this movie: Bad Boy versus Good Guy love triangle, dissatisfied Rust Belt 20-somethings yearning for more than their parents’ boring lives, ridiculously hot diner waitress that I have never seen even a rough approximation of in real life — check, check, and check, please. It’s certainly not Burns’ best work as an actor or director, and unlike its protagonists the film is frustratingly unambitious.

But No Looking Back always pulls me in. Burns has a knack for capturing a sense of place, and even when his script falls into cliché, he shows a flair for writing dialogue that captures the way people really talk while tweaking and nudging the words just enough to keep things interesting. The melancholy of No Looking Back feels real, and the characters’ quiet desperation isn’t oversold into hackneyed melodrama.

Burns also understands the value of a talented ensemble cast with a couple of ringers, a common trait in his films — She’s the One wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining without John Mahoney, for example. Not surprisingly, Lauren Holly is the weak link in No Looking Back, but it may be her best performance, by which I mean she rises to mediocrity. Claudia is a bit clueless, which is Holly’s default facial expression anyway, and she does no harm while on-screen. Burns surrounds her with a group of character actors who seamlessly fit into blue collar New Jersey and keep the viewer’s attention fixed with just plain good acting. Connie Britton (“Friday Night Lights”) and Blythe Danner (“all that is good and right in the world”) play Claudia’s sister and mother, still living in the same house where Claudia grew up and still wondering why Claudia doesn’t get with the program and marry Michael. Although Danner is hardly anyone’s idea of a grim New Jersey matron, she is predictably excellent in a small role, and Connie Britton, a criminally underused actor in films, is also wonderful. Jennifer Esposito, aka Sex-Tousled Detective from Crash, has a nice role as another of Charlie’s childhood friends who pines for Michael and the simple, small-town life he desires.

Jon Bon Jovi is the real surprise here, successfully making Michael into something much more than a naïve sucker with a “kick me” sign on his back. Although it’s clear which of her two suitors Claudia’s heart prefers, her brain (such as it is) is firmly pointed toward Michael, and the viewer is likely to be rooting for him as well. Burns approaches the Michael-Charlie dynamic with a finely calibrated and complex sense of the choice Claudia faces. Brooding wiseass Charlie is kind of an asshole; an asshole you wouldn’t mind having a beer with but also wouldn’t want your girlfriend having a beer with. I respect Burns for putting aside his ego to paint his own character role with a pretty unsympathetic brush. It’s clear from the story that Charlie was to blame for the breakup with Claudia, and equally clear that Charlie is still a pretty poor bet all these years later.

While the story plays out to a great degree as one might expect, the journey is inexplicably comfortable and even rewarding, and Burns does a good job tweaking expectations with an unconventional resolution to the story that ends up doing right by all the characters. As Pajiba genres go, I don’t know that No Looking Back could be called an Underappreciated Gem, and it’s too serious and not trashy enough for Hangover Theater. If Edward Burns appeals to your sensibilities, or if you just like melancholy, working-class romance, it’s worth a look.

Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who plans to leave his barstool to stalk Whit Stillman, now that someone has found Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at [email protected]

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