Review: ‘No Looking Back’

A minor character and mood piece, "No Looking Back" reps a watchable but unexciting sidestep for writer-director-star Edward Burns after the promising "The Brothers McMullen" and the vapid "She's the One."

A minor character and mood piece, “No Looking Back” reps a watchable but unexciting sidestep for writer-director-star Edward Burns after the promising “The Brothers McMullen” and the vapid “She’s the One.” Effectively evocative of dead-end small-town life, handsomely crafted working-class pic is nonetheless too bereft of incident, complexity and surprise to generate much interest, spelling blah B.O. in limited release.

Film bluntly announces its simple themes with its title and opening song, Sheryl Crow’s “Home,” and never expands on them. Good-looking Charlie (Burns) returns to his sleepy Eastern seaboard hometown with the sole aim of winning back the girlfriend he unceremoniously abandoned three years before, only to find that Claudia (Lauren Holly) is “basically” engaged to Michael (Jon Bon Jovi), Charlie’s best friend since first grade.

Still, things are far from settled as far as Claudia is concerned. Having worked as a waitress at the local diner for far too long, she is pushing decisively into her 30s, with the future looking more and more desolate. Of life, she says, “I feel it closing in,” the reason she figures that her father, like Charlie before him, walked out on the family recently.

Michael, no doubt the most attractive guy in town, loves Claudia unreservedly, but he makes no more money as a grease monkey than she does serving burgers and coffee, and she can see nothing on the horizon that will alter the grim picture. Gradually, Charlie makes his move, begins breaking down Claudia’s defenses and tries to convince her to change her luck by running away with him. Ending feels entirely appropriate for the dynamics and sympathies the film establishes.

That’s all there is. For a great dramatist of small-town angst and lost opportunities, such as the late William Inge or Tennessee Williams, it might have been almost enough. But Burns’ writing, although it captures the parlance of his blue-collar characters — the question “Everything all right?” crops up repeatedly, with increasingly ironic effect — is far too bland to carry any poetic resonance, and the dialogue baldly states the meanings he wishes to convey.

Only Claudia is conceived in anything more than one dimension, and while Holly, still looking a tad too glamorous for the drab surroundings, gives the part a good, wholehearted reading, the character remains somewhat too fuzzy to create full-fledged rooting interest in her. Bon Jovi is fine as far as his ultra-nice-guy role goes, which isn’t far at all, while Burns’ Charlie is, unfortunately, a complete cipher. Completely unforthcoming as to what he’s been up to for three years or what his vision of the future might be, Charlie is maddeningly unreadable as to his sincerity and depth of his feelings; the only certainty with him is his unlimited selfishness and vanity.

Yarn gets a very tepid side issue going regarding Claudia’s delusional mother (Blythe Danner), who still thinks her husband is going to return one day, but it could have used some real subplots to set more dramatic gears in motion. As it is, interest is more or less sustained by the credible portrait of a town where social life centers on the bar and upward mobility is all but impossible, and by the decent work of most of the performers.

Lensed in Rockaway Beach, N.Y., in chilly off-season, pic has been sensitively shot in appropriately muted tones by Frank Prinzi. Like the dialogue, the rock songs so extensively employed on the soundtrack are staggeringly literal in their meanings vis-a-vis the drama.

No Looking Back

Production

A Gramercy (in U.S.)/20th Century Fox (international) release of a Polygram Filmed Entertainment Group presentation of a Marlboro Road Gang/Good Machine/South Fork Pictures production. Produced by Ted Hope, Michael Nozik, Edward Burns. Executive producer, Robert Redford. Co-executive producer, John Sloss. Directed, written by Edward Burns.

With

Claudia - Lauren Holly Charlie - Edward Burns Michael - Jon Bon Jovi Claudia's Mom - Blythe Danner Kelly - Connie Britton Teresa - Jennifer Esposito Goldie - Nick Sandow Tony - John Ventimiglia Missy - Welker White Annie - Susan Pratt
Frank Prinzi; editor, Susan Graef; music, Joe Delia; production designer, Therese DePrez; set decorator, Diane Lederman; costume designer, Sara Jane Slotnick; sound (Dolby digital), Matthew Price; line producer, Alysse Bezahler; assistant director, Richard Patrick; casting, Laura Rosenthal. Reviewed at Polygram screening room, Beverly Hills, March 3, 1998. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 96 MIN.
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