Pretty much everyone I know who doesn’t live in New York kids me from time to time about how much of a “New Yorker” I am. Hey, I can’t help it — it’s not my fault they were born in other states with much less to do (although likely less taxes, too). One of the two great things about New York is that a) we have talented homegrown independent filmmaking talent like Edward Burns and b) we get independent movies here way before any state that doesn’t border an ocean.
But when it comes to Newlyweds, Burns’ latest film, I really dropped the ball. Even though Newlyweds premiered way back during the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival (which Alex and Melissa covered for us!) and several screenings have been held since I haven’t been able to catch it. I was a bit annoyed by that since Burns — along with his very human, yet very truthful, style of storytelling — is one of my favorite directors (he’s a damn fine actor, too). I was a huge fan of Burns’ last film Nice Guy Johnny (more on that later) and Newlyweds brings back much of the same cast.
But Burns actually helped me out with my unfulfilled goal to see the film. Instead of opening the movie in a few theaters and growing the audience by word of mouth (the traditional way of rolling out a film like Newlyweds), Newlyweds premiered on Video on Demand and outlets like Amazon and iTunes on December 26. In an interview with TribecaFilm.com Burns points out the obvious effect technology has on film distribution: “It’s the difference between 2 screens, NY and LA, or 45 million homes across the country. Financially, it’s a no-brainer that films should go out on VOD.”
It’s a smart move. Burns, who was part of the initial mid-90s independent film boom with his 1995 debut The Brothers McMullen, has trailblazed online distribution with his prior two films Purple Violets and Nice Guy Johnny. Like those previous films, the intimate nature of Newlyweds lends itself well to a smaller screen since it is a low-budget film about relationships, and in particular we view three: newlyweds Buzzy (Burns) and Katie (Caitlin Fitzgerald) who are both on their second marriages, Katie’s sister Marsha (Marsha Dietlein) and Max (Max Baker) who are coming to the end of an 18 year marriage, and Buzzy’s half-sister Linda (Kerry Bishé) who arrives in New York relatively unannounced to chase after her former boyfriend Miles (Johnny Solo) who is now married. Add in the eternally aggravating Dara (Dara Coleman), Katie’s broke ex-husband who finds any reason to remind everyone that he is an actor/”artist” and you have nowhere to go but disaster. Similar to Woody Allen‘s masterful Hannah and Her Sisters — the poster of which Newlyweds‘ own clearly homages — this isn’t a film just about romantic relationships but family relationships. Buzzy and Katie openly talk about the strength of their new marriage in the film’s pseudo-documentary style, but can that strength hold up against the outside forces of family baggage?
Famously Burns shot the film in twelve days that the cast had free and the total cost of the shoot was $9000. That low budget shows, but I mean that in every possibly positive way: It truly feels like we are getting an intimate peek in on these characters — most of the shots are close, and the wide shots have an almost voyeuristic quality to them. What’s incredible is how deeply we get to know these characters in only 90 minutes. It’s a testament to the talented actors in the film, who embody familiar characteristics of people we know without becoming outright stereotypes.
Of them all, the true star of the film is Kerry Bishé’s Linda, a much darker version of the free spirit tennis player character she played in Burns’ Nice Guy Johnny. While Bishé’s character in that film was delightful, Linda is one of those twentysomething free spirits who has hit the point in which she has to grow up, but she won’t do so without a fight. It leads her to making decisions that seem to hurt everyone around her, consequences be damned. Her interview segments show the audience just how out of touch she really is with the reality around her and for her half-brother she becomes nothing less that a ticking time bomb of drama.
Likewise, Marsha and Max’s deteriorating marriage takes its toll on Katie. Marsha’s miserable attitude about the lack of male honesty (though it’s really her husband’s lack of honesty) is just as detrimental to Buzzy and Katie’s marriage as Linda is. It soon becomes apparent that while Buzzy and Katie may be perfectly happy with their marriage, the outside pressure might be too much for them to handle. Of course, since this is a Burns film it isn’t wall-to-wall drama: Buzzy has some priceless comedic reactions to the chaos around him, as does Katie. While the film ultimately seems to take a positive view of marriage in modern society, Burns does leave a few loose ends (what the heck happens to Max?) that thankfully don’t hurt the overall experience.
As a result, Newlyweds succeeds on two levels: first, Burns has pulled off a technical low-budget marvel which opens doors for filmmakers of all budgets, and second — and more importantly — he tells an intimate, compelling narrative about the old adage that we don’t just marry a person, we marry a family.
(One nitpick: product placement is obviously one way to fund independent productions, but it seems in the world of Newlyweds the only beer in New York is Heineken. Thank God I live in the real New York, with more beers available than there are pizza restaurants!)
Movie Rating: A refreshing story of relationships well worth the cheap VOD price (8/10)