By James Kenney
Hooray for Edward Burns, steadfast and true, whose latest unremarkable, enjoyable, affable and gently conventional feature film, Summer Days, Summer Nights, snuck out unannounced via Epix and Amazon streaming for rental or purchase.
Burns, certainly out of fashion, has never deviated from his self-proclaimed mandate to be a working-class variation on Woody Allen, but, imperceptible to many, he has enhanced his craft through the years. Brothers McMullen and She’s the One, still his two most popular films, are far from his best; superficial, and filled with characters who act in dimly unpleasant ways imposed on them by screenwriter Burns, not out of any organic character development. These commercial successes nevertheless weren’t boring and were generally well-acted and mildly diverting, and young Burns was a nice success story who seemed amiable enough.
Sure enough, his next film, No Looking Back (initially given the much more evocative title Long Time, Nothing New) stiffed, which, sure enough, means it was by far the best of the three – an honest, credible scenario of a dissatisfied waitress briefly turning her back on her tried and true local plodder boyfriend to reengage with her scoundrel-ex. Burns’ third film was both nicely shot and acted (Lauren Holly, Blythe Danner and Jon Bon Jovi costarred alongside Burns), but no one cared save me and Andrew Sarris, who gave it a nice notice. Seek it out if you like Burns.
Since then, a few of his films have been minor hits, many have sunk without a trace, but I posit that pretty much all his best work came in his “mature” period – the aforementioned Back, along with Sidewalks of New York, the Groomsmen, the Newlyweds and the excellent Fitzgerald Family Christmas all offered good actors reasonable parts to play, and Burns’ scripting and directing has been sensible, thoughtful and unsurprising. If it sounds like I’m damning with faint praise, think again. I’m rooting for Burns, whose films pointedly lack comic book references and wild shootouts – his one film with a couple of guns waved around, Ash Wednesday, was more Scorsese than Bruckheimer, and it’s his worst film anyway. Burns likes dramatizing human-scale conflict and clearly likes actors. Good for him.
As to be expected for any filmmaker who focuses on human-scale conflict, Burns has recently turned to television, with Bridge and Tunnel entering its second season for Epix, but mention must be made of his most recent feature film release (shot a couple of years ago), a lively, peppy ensemble piece following a bunch of 18-22 year olds during summer break on the South Shore of Long Island in 1982; some ready to start college, some ready to start their adult lives. Shot in a nicely jaunty 2:35-1 frame filled with a collective of attractive young bodies, Burns doesn’t do much we haven’t seen before, but it is friendly and engaging, with a nice soundtrack of the hits of the time (Duran Duran, the Pretenders, Chaka Kahn, the Go-Go’s, etc.). Oddly, Burns left Twitter despite a sizeable following, which seems a mistake for an indie filmmaker whose films don’t receive an advertising budget — no doubt this film would have much more of a presence if Burns had continued to engage with his fans through social media. Now it’s down to me alone to spread the word!
The young cast is wholly capable, with Pico Alexander as Burns’s son who works for him at a private beach club, Lindsey Morgan as Alexander’s slightly older coworker and potential love interest, and Anthony Ramos as a guy still hung up on the girl who abandoned him to marry a Van Halen producer making the strongest impressions. Burns himself is the only cast member I recognized, but it is both nice and destabilizing to see him age on the screen, now playing the dad part he’d have once given to John Mahoney.
And we’ve all heard of the son-wants-to-be-an-artist-but-dad-wants-him-to-go-into-business trope used in coming-of-age movies, such as John Hughes’ Some Kind of Wonderful, yes? An indication of whether you’ll like Summer Days, Summer Nights is that Burns’ character is instead exasperated with his son’s pursuing a business degree; he’d rather Alexander continues the creative writing he loved in high school, telling him the American dream isn’t to get rich, but “having the opportunity to follow your passion.” If that kind of benign inversion of formula sounds agreeable to you, you’ll likely enjoy Summer Days, Summer Nights. I did, and if seems unlikely Burns will ever make a truly great film, I’m pretty okay with him reliably making pretty good ones, and hope he gets to make a few more.