The film itself doesn’t fare so well. It’s the latest from Edward Burns, the onetime Sundance phenom (and occasional actor) who has seen his directorial efforts slowly slide out of even the arthouse consciousness. Watching Nice Guy Johnny, you start to understand why you didn’t hear about his last three or four efforts; he’s made no growth as a filmmaker. It has all of the same problems as The Brothers McMullen and She’s the One—but they’re less forgivable now, because he’s not a novice anymore.
Matt Bush (best known as the guy who kept nut-punching Jesse Eisenberg in Adventureland) plays Johnny Rizzo, a would-be sports talk radio host, grinding it out on the overnight shift at a station in Oakland. His fiancée Claire (Anna Wood) is losing patience; he promised her a good-paying job by the time he turned 25, so he’s heading back home to New York for the weekend to interview for a job her father has set up for him. Once there, he connects with his horndog uncle Terry (Burns), a free-wheeling bartender and ladies man who thinks his nephew is far too young to get married and settle down, so he spirits the kid off to the Hamptons for the weekend to help him “get some strange.”
It doesn’t work out like that, though; Johnny is a nice guy, and nice guys don’t cheat on their fiancées, even when they meet a charming knockout like Brooke (Bishé). But they end up hanging out anyway, and then they start to like each other, and she of course thinks it’s ridiculous for him to give up his radio dream, and there are misunderstandings and fights and confessions and so on, and everything happens pretty much exactly as anticipated.
The movie’s biggest problem is Bush, about as unsteady a leading man as you can imagine—I’m not sure what Burns saw in this kid, but whatever it was, it doesn’t come across on screen. First of all, he looks to be approximately 12 years old; Bishé towers over him, and their romantic scenes look, at first glance, like a hot babysitter throwing herself at the kid she’s in charge of. Towards the end of the film, when he gets impatient with Terry, he bangs himself around in his seat like a five year old, whining “Can we go, I wanna go!” But his boyish looks aren’t the only problem—his voice is a high-pitched squeak, rendering his already-unconvincing “on air” scenes entirely implausible. Has Burns ever listened to sports radio? Does he know a radio voice when he hears one? And does he know that they sound like they’re speaking extemporaneously—as opposed to this guy, who is clearly reciting words Burns wrote in a script for him? Not to beat up on the poor guy, but seriously, if the radio scenes are bad, the movie’s entire premise falls apart; we understand why Claire wants him to give up being a radio show host, because he’s a terrible radio show host. She’s the sensible one in that relationship.
But that’s entirely by accident; the film paints the fiancée as a one-dimensional shrew with no redeeming qualities, which adds up to no suspense as to who Johnny’s going to end up with. We can’t imagine what they ever saw in each other, so we can’t fathom what would keep him with her. Burns deals from a similarly loaded deck with the career business; the job her dad (a therapist) has lined up is the comically undesirable position of warehouse manager at a cardboard box facility. Seriously? Wouldn’t Johnny’s choices be more interesting if he were choosing between two different but desirable women? Or between a starter position in his preferred field, or a good job that just wasn’t his dream job?
Burns, as always, is natural and charismatic, but his many, many dialogue scenes with Bush are all dead declaratives and forced banter—there’s no rhythm to his writing, no pulse. Good actors (like him and Bishé) can make it work, but when an actor’s not up to the task, watch out. Then again, these are the same problems his films have always had: pedestrian coverage and cutting, uneven performances (remember how badly Mike McGlone and Maxine Bahns stuck out from the rest of the solid performers in She’s the One?), heavy reliance on music montages (some of these lyrics are laughably literal), repetitive dialogue that gets some laughs but mostly sounds like first draft (if I had to hear about Johnny’s dreams one more time, I would have screamed). Ultimately, with nothing much at stake, Nice Guy Johnny is not terribly funny and not really dramatic. Most scenes are greeted with stony silence, and it evaporates from the audience’s memory the moment it’s over. But I’m telling you: Kerry Bishé. Keep an eye on that one. She’s gonna be a movie star.
"Nice Guy Johnny" is screening April 25, 28, and 30 as part of the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.