No Looking Back runs just under a hundred minutes. The first half of the film–roughly the first half–evenly relies on its cast. In fact, top-billed Lauren Holly almost has less than either Jon Bon Jovi and director Burns (acting, second-billed) in the first half. It’s a love triangle and she’s the prize. Burns is coming back to Nowhere, Long Island after running away to California years before. Ex-girlfriend Holly has moved on and in with Bon Jovi, who’s ostensibly a childhood friend of Burns’s but it’s a somewhat reluctant friendship. Burns is a jerk from scene two. He has two honest moments in the film; his first and his last. The rest of the time, he’s basically just a prick.
But he’s a different kind of prick than Bon Jovi, who’s the too perfect man. He wants to be a good dad, can’t wait for Holly to join his mom and sisters in the kitchen for football Sunday (he’s in the living room with his brothers), and so on and so forth. There’s this strange transition with sympathies, which Burns (as a writer and director) doesn’t deal with very well. He tries hard to keep the love triangle restless–the three characters never all interact in a single scene, even if all present–and it strains the film at times. But it also pays off because it means Holly gets more opportunity.
Then around the halfway market, a Bruce Springsteen song comes on the radio and No Looking Back totally changes. The first half soundtrack, with the exception of a Patti Scialfa track or two, is indistinct, bland, late nineties pseudo-alternative songs. Nothing distinct. And then, all of a sudden, Holly assumes the protagonist role decisively. Performance, script, direction. The first half of the movie has been an awkward setup to provide back story to turn the second half into a Bruce Springsteen mix tape set to film. And it’s exceptional. The film’s flow is better, the scenes more poignant–I mean, it’s a soap opera. The thing couldn’t fail the Bechdel test more if it tried. But it’s this exceptional soap opera turned character study. And what ends up saving it is when Burns, as writer and director, stops pretending there’s any depth to he and Bon Jovi’s characters. More, the characters have to stop pretending too. It’s awesome.
Plus, there’s scene payoff for most of the supporting cast. Blythe Danner (as Holly’s mom) gets almost nothing in the first half and ends up being essential in pulling off the big finale upswing. Connie Britton’s great as Holly’s sister, with the first half’s least disjointed arc. Jennifer Esposito and Nick Sandow are both good as various friends, though Sandow’s basically Norm from “Cheers” and Esposito doesn’t get enough to do.
Oh–and Joe Delia’s score is a mess in the first half. There’s this generic hard rock theme running through the score. Maybe Burns could only get the four or five Springsteen songs and had to save them, but it’s not a good theme for Holly as Burns intentionally and maliciously upends her life, albeit through accepted social conventions. Score is much better in the second half.
Great photography from Frank Prinzi. Nice, patient editing from Susan Graef.
Holly doesn’t have a great character here; Burns ignored her too much in the first half to setup the second, but she gives an excellent performance. The stuff she gets to do in the second half, it’s like a reward for having to suffer through the first half’s weaker scenes. Bon Jovi gives a strong performance and once Burns, as an actor, gets to the Springsteen section, he really comes through as well.
No Looking Back has more than its share of problems, all of them (with the exception of the music) director Burns’s fault. It’s also pretty darn great; again, all Burns’s fault.