One of the great achievements of the indie-film movement has been the spawning of so many young filmmakers who can actually write. Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee, Todd Haynes, Whit Stillman, Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Paul Thomas Anderson, Neil LaBute — every one of them grew up in an omnivorous media culture that fetishizes the visual, yet all have reveled in the sheer digressive pleasure of talk. Two of the most gifted of the lot are Richard Linklater, creator of Slacker, Dazed and Confused, and Before Sunrise (a movie that’s literally nothing but talk), and Edward Burns, whose fraternal romantic comedies, The Brothers McMullen and She’s the One, crackle with wry dexterity. These two are truly men of their words. But to judge from their latest efforts, Linklater’s The Newton Boys (Twentieth Century Fox) and Burns’ No Looking Back (Gramercy), they may now be underrating their own best strengths.
The 37-year-old Linklater is arguably the most uncynical filmmaker of his generation, and you can see why that geniality of spirit would have led him to make The Newton Boys, a rootin’-tootin’ crooks-on-the-lam Prohibition Western that has the distinction of being an American outlaw saga without a hint of a dark side. It’s based on the true story of the Newton brothers, who grew up as cowboys and cotton farmers and then, from 1919 to 1924, robbed more than 80 banks from Texas to Canada, becoming the most successful bank robbers in U.S. history. As embodied by Matthew McConaughey, Ethan Hawke, Skeet Ulrich, and Vincent D’Onofrio, the Newtons are grinning, joshing, weirdly wholesome good-time pranksters who never kill anyone, never fight over a girl, and never worry very much about getting caught. Spurred by a miraculous new weapon — nitroglycerin — and by the new federal insurance laws that guarantee that the cash they’re stealing won’t come out of the pockets of civilians, they view robbery, quite simply, as a nifty business proposition.
Scored to a disarmingly quaint array of fiddle-and-banjo tunes, The Newton Boys has so little in the way of blood or rancor that before long, you begin to notice that there’s no real drama in it, either. Attempting to craft his own lovingly old-fashioned version of a studio-system fable, Linklater has completely blanded out his sense of character. The four Newtons, as written, are Johnny One-Notes, and the performers, speaking in rich cornpone drawls, seem to spend most of their energy looking pleased with themselves for playing period-piece dress-up. McConaughey is especially cloying. He’s not a bad actor, but his charm has just two dimensions — cocky and cockier. It would be nice to report that the rambling cowpoke jocularity of The Newton Boys recalled, say, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but I’m afraid that Linklater’s film is so wispy, generic, and innocuous it makes even a confection like Butch Cassidy look profound. He needs to go back to the word processor and create some characters who invite the audience’s investment.
In the beautiful opening sequence of No Looking Back, pearly twilight images of an unnamed New York shore town roll by to the strains of ”Home,” Sheryl Crow’s haunting ballad about a woman who wakes up to realize that her relationship has withered and died. That scenario is mirrored in the film itself, which features a surprisingly plaintive and heartfelt Lauren Holly in the role of Claudia, a diner waitress who is all but engaged to her live-in lover (Jon Bon Jovi). Then her old flame (Burns) returns — the one who’d abandoned her three years before. A sexy, no-good flake, as untrustworthy as he is charming, he’s the last thing she needs, and she knows it. Claudia’s real quandary hinges on the life she’s facing: work, marriage, a family — somehow, it all seems too…finite.
Will she take a chance on the scoundrel? Burns stages No Looking Back with the same instinctive rhythm he brought to his earlier pictures, though without the sidelong wit. Earnest to the point of being somber, No Looking Back feels a bit like penance: a born funnyman’s stab at seriousness, and, just maybe, the macho-centric Burns’ backhanded answer to his female critics. He needn’t have tried so hard. In No Looking Back, Burns can stage a romantic embrace so that it vibrates with conflicted intensity. Yet the element of the film that’s most alive is his own quietly self-adoring matinee-idol performance. With that voice that’s like a sultry caress, he may simply be too natural a movie star to fit into this scruffy working-class love triangle. The film’s ending is a minor howler, with Claudia arriving at a moment of wistful ”feminist” self-realization that would have seemed quite brave in 1978. Burns remains a seductive filmmaker, but he hit higher when he wasn’t aiming so high. C-