The story of the guy who’s too nice to get the girl has become a predictable formula in movies and television. A related character is the pushover who feebly lets his girlfriend run his life, much to the dismay of his single buddies. Finally, we have the idealistic youngster who gives up his dreams to enter the adult world. The latter two categories would basically describe the plight of Johnny Rizzo (Matt Bush), who is visiting New York to interview for an extremely dull, but well-paying job. Also, he also must deal with the constant pressure from his fiancée Claire (Anna Wood) to make something of himself. Johnny just wants to be a sports radio host; is that so wrong?
As the writer/director of Nice Guy Johnny, Ed Burns explores familiar territory: How does a young man balance the trappings of adulthood with his lifelong dreams? Not yet 25, Johnny seems to have years ahead of him before realizing his goals might not be attainable. This free approach is embodied by his uncle Terry (Burns), who’s never really moved beyond an adolescent mindset. He balances multiple affairs with married women and does not see a problem with taking advantage of his rich lovers. Terry’s definitely not the proper role model for his straight-arrow nephew, but his approach could have some merit for the young guy. If you get past the lying and philandering, Terry does seem happy with his shady life.
Predictably, Johnny’s outlook changes by meeting a carefree, beautiful girl who’s the exact opposite of his nasty fiancée. Brooke (Kerry Bishe) has just graduated from college and spends her days partying and teaching rich people to play tennis. The young duo has a relaxed connection and appears to be kindred spirits. It’s not hard to understand why Johnny would be tempted to forgo his responsible self while around her. Hailing from Oakland, he seems out of place in the lavish Hamptons, which adds to her attraction. Burns’ tranquil direction gives the couple a chance to interact without throwing them into contrived scenes. They mostly just sit and hang out on the beach in an environment far removed from the stressful home life.
This “no budget” film had an official budget of $25,000 and was shot in ten days, which seems insane even for a small indie picture. In his intriguing commentary, Burns explains the tricks used and favors needed to produce a cohesive film with so little money. Filmed mostly at several attractive locations in the Hamptons, the story does not require expensive sets or filming techniques. The actors worked for virtually nothing, and Burns used an extremely small crew. The director’s commentary is a must-listen for anyone interested in the act of creating a low-budget movie. It actually transcends the film and a wealth of worthy tidbits for prospective filmmakers. The rest of the DVD is pretty standard extras, with just a few deleted scenes and audition footage.
I admire Burns’ ability to craft a believable movie with virtually no money, and the character-driven approach makes his work fairly unique. The difficulty lies with crafting three-dimensional individuals while avoiding stereotypes. Bush and Bishe are attractive and likable on screen, and they portray affable characters. The trouble is the thinly drawn supporting players surrounding the prime relationship.
The worst offender is Johnny’s fiancée Claire, who is such an obvious villain that she becomes uninteresting. When her plans are compared to the views of the radiant Brooke, Johnny’s ultimate decision becomes, well, obvious. If Burns had developed Claire into a more three-dimensional figure, the stakes for Johnny would have been much higher. Even though he’s committed years to the relationship, it’s obvious to everyone the wedding is a mistake. Claire’s push to get him to grow up is not flawed in theory if the alternative had any value. Making her a one-dimensional bully leaves only an obvious route towards the story’s end.
The other trouble spot is Terry, who spouts way too much obvious dialogue to his nephew. His constant ribbing of Johnny’s niceness and need for experiences might work if the conversations had even a hint of subtlety. In a trickier film like Roger Dodger, Campbell Scott brings charm to a similar role. It’s easy to see how Jessie Eisenberg’s teenager would be drawn to Roger’s approach to life. This film makes Terry too obvious and clearly a scoundrel regardless of his intentions. The overly straightforward tone diminishes a capable premise for Burns. It’s a light, easy-to-watch story, but takes the easy route far too often.
Nice Guy Johnny avoids feelings like a cheap picture, and that success lies with Burns and his crew. They deliver impressive cinematography that conveys at least a few million dollars of production costs. This fact makes it an interesting experiment and an acceptable film. However, the obvious conflicts and thinly drawn characters lessen the overall effects. Johnny finds his proper place by the story’s end, yet the emotional impact is muted. This good-natured story needs more fiery drama and conflict to make its resolution inspiring.