Once again utilizing his low budget sensibilities and a few friendly faces, writer/director/producer/actor Ed Burns has crafted an impressive adult dramedy that feels blissfully familiar (and awkwardly familial). Newlyweds is a semi-documentary style film that relies almost solely on the talents of its cast – a true ensemble made up of Burns as Buzzy, the cocksure fitness instructor on his second marriage; Caitlin Fitzgerald as his sweetly sarcastic wife Katie; Kerry Bishé (seen above) as his self-destructive sister Linda; Marsha Dietlein as his opinionated sister-in-law Marsha; and Max Baker as Marsha’s perverted old husband (in his second outing as a character named Max for an Ed Burns film).
Buzzy and Katie are the kind of couple you want to be best friends with. They’re pragmatic and funny, obviously looking at life through the sober and absurd lens that their first marriages afforded them. They are tonal opposites of Marsha and Max whose 18 years together have given them emotional crow’s feet and an aggressive bitterness that doesn’t make them flinch when it starts gnashing its teeth in public.
They could be representations of different stages and styles of relationships as a means to put on display the human fragility of latching yourself on to another human being for “the rest of your life.” Or, you know, they could just be real people. Which is more likely.
On that front, Burns is deft at delivering true-to-life situations without collapsing into the soap operatic. Everything that pushes the story forward lives in that odd category labeled “everyday drama.” Linda, like The Joker by way of Woody Allen, is a tornado of hysterics (who flew to New York to convince an old boyfriend to leave his wife for her), but nothing she does seems alien. She’s the friend/relative that everyone has – self-centric and keenly unaware that her actions have a destructive effect on the people around her. Of course, Burns mines this for all the yelling and laughter it’s worth without ever hitting an false note.
Furthermore, this is a thoroughly talkative movie – one crafted by Burns and honed by actors who clearly live within the skin of each character. Just as there are no bombastic elements to the plot, there are also no caricatures in the cast. The one who comes closest to being a cartoon is Dara (Dara Coleman), Katie’s starving artist ex-husband who does everything at a gut level. Fortunately, even he is rounded out (after a hilarious bit where he tries to explain his womanizing while flirting with real New York women walking past him as they filmed).
And therein lies part of the beauty of the picture. The realism is astounding. Burns and company have created a moving family portrait that hits home, drops its bags in your guest bedroom, and refuses to leave. The strength of the writing and the actors is at the heart of it all, but New York City is allowed to breathe its own street-swept air into every frame. Due credit goes to Burns and DP William Rexer for not being complacent with the shot selection in a dialogue-heavy flick. It’s consistently visually interesting while the line delivery does its magic.
So it’s sharp, intimate, and realistic, but it also suffers from the same thing all word-driven movies do: a flatter landscape. Each scene is structurally the same – two or more people talking to each other – which can get monotonous no matter how interesting everything is. If there is a downside, it’s certainly that. Fortunately, there’s an energy here that crackles as the stakes for Katie and Buzzy get higher, and as they further realize their own shortcomings along with the promiscuous pitfalls of being married to your loved one’s family and past. What’s truly great is the level of uncertainty that comes from a clear willingness to allow characters to make bold decisions that can change who they are drastically. By the midway mark, the confident couple we met in the beginning is not nearly as steady, being bombarded by external forces that remind consistently that marriage is insanely hard to get right.
While not jaw-dropping, it’s the kind of movie to write home about because dramedy made specifically for adults is a rarity these days. Even rarer are the ones that are made this well. Newlyweds is an exceptional film that relies on the basics and gets them right.
The Upside: Solid filmmaking from an indie veteran and a strong ensemble who understands how real people think and act. It also thankfully has nothing to do with Jessica Simpson or Nick Lachey.
The Downside: A repetitive structure (by nature), and an overall effect that hits like a baseball bat but doesn’t light any fireworks.
On the Side: Burns made the film for $9,000 and updated his fans regularly on production methods using Twitter. It’s available currently on Video On Demand and iTunes with a limited release on January 13th.