Talk about beating the sophomore jinx: Ed Burns, the multihyphenate fi filmmaker who burst onto the scene last year with The Brothers McMullen, is back with an even smarter, funnier and altogether better movie, She's the One. Once again setting his sights on family ties and sibling rivalries in a New York Irish-Catholic milieu, Burns has made a humorous and heartfelt romantic comedy that, despite the specificity of its focus, is bound to provide gentle shocks of recognition for practically anyone who sees it.
This time, there are two twentysomething brothers, not three, named Fitzpatrick, not McMullen. As he did in his debut feature, Burns gives himself the most fully developed role: Mickey, a laid-back, wiseass underachiever who genuinely enjoys his status as "the only English-speaking white guy driving a cab in New York." Francis (Mike McGlone), Mickey's younger brother, has managed to move a lot further from his working-class roots. He is a successful Wall Street investor with a six-figure salary, a spacious apartment and a beautiful, loving wife named Renee (Jennifer Aniston). But none of this impresses Mickey, who notes that his brother seems, for all his accomplishments and acquisitions, miserable. "I'm not miserable," Francis insists. "I'm dissatisfied. That's what makes me a success."
Evidently, that's also what makes him an adulterer. Francis is having an affair with Heather (Cameron Diaz), a frankly mercenary beauty who just happens to be Mickey's ex-fiancee. Years ago, she worked her way through college as a prostitute. Mickey knew all about that when he met her, but, hey, he's a live and let live sort of guy. But even Mickey has his limits. He walked out of their relationship after he caught Heather in bed with another man. (This interlude, it should be noted, was an extracurricular activity, not an attempt to resume her career.) At the time, Heather didn't feel compelled to chase him. But when Heather fortuitously hails Mickey's cab one day, their serendipitous reunion very nearly leads to a rekindling of passion. Indeed, it might lead to a lot of other things, were it not for the fact that, by this point in She's the One, Mickey's a husband.
Call it love at first sight, and you won't be far off the mark. Hope (Maxine Bahns), a free spirit with a smile as warm as springtime, meets Mickey when she hails his cab for a ride to the airport. Trouble is, Hope really doesn't like to fly. She would much prefer to drive to her destination, New Orleans, to attend a wedding. And it would be even better if she could be driven there -- by, say, a cute young cabdriver. One thing leads to another, and two days later, they are married.
Such impulsive romanticism warms the heart of Renee, who feels the absence of passion in her own marriage. Bound by some misguided sense of fidelity -- and, probably, limited by his own endurance -- Francis doesn't want to make love to Renee while he's carrying on with Heather. (As another character cracks, "You don't want to cheat on your girlfriend with your wife!") Renee tries her best to be seductive. Failing that, she tries to be threatening -- if Francis doesn't come across, she warns, she will seek relief with a vibrator. Francis is shocked -- nice Catholic girls aren't supposed to talk about orgasms, much less actively seek them with battery-operated devices. Even so, he remains faithful. In a manner of speaking.
One of the many enjoyable things about She's the One is Burns' willingness to allow his characters the room to contain all sorts of contradictions. Right from the start, it's clear that Francis is a lout who's too dim to recognize his own selfishness. (When Heather tells him she faked an orgasm during their recent lovemaking, his reply -- "So?" -- speaks volumes about his cluelessness.) But he isn't so far gone that he fails to realize that his relationship with Heather is, on some level, a continuation of a long-running rivalry with his older brother. That's not to say he doesn't have hard-core lust in his heart for the woman. But he appears to be driven far less by love than pride when Mickey spills the beans about Heather's checkered past.
And how does Mickey feel about Heather? Burns is provocatively cagey about this. Here and there, he drops broad hints that, if Mickey weren't attached to Hope, he might be interested in a return engagement with his ex-fiancee, despite his bitter words about her shattering his heart. It wouldn't be fair to reveal what sort of payoff this leads to, if indeed there is a payoff. But Burns infuses a couple of his scenes opposite Diaz with an erotic undercurrent that anyone who's ever been in love will appreciate. Look at their faces and their body language, and you can't miss it -- the sort of second thoughts and impulsive urges you feel whenever you're near the ex-lover you don't hate as much as you want to.
All of which might explain why Mickey tells Francis about Heather's wild college days in the first place.
Burns caught heat from some critics for supposedly depicting female characters as unreasonably passive in The Brothers McMullen. This, I think, was an unfair slam -- the women in that particular world were true to their own natures, not to some politically correct ideal -- but it may have been what Burns needed to nudge him into giving the women in She's the One a bit more depth. At first glance, Heather seems to be nothing more than the personification of a male fantasy. Gradually, however, Heather reveals just how fully she remains in control while practicing her art as sexual predator. And she makes no apologies for herself, not even when Mickey huffily insists that working as a cabdriver is several steps above her former occupation. Heather's hard-bitten response, which should remain a surprise, is one of the funniest lines in the film. Cameron Diaz gives a strong, sexy performance as Heather, with just enough ambiguity around the edges to suggest there's a lot more going on with this character than what meets the eye.
As Renee, Jennifer Aniston is sweetly amusing, but not cloying. She is particularly good in those scenes where Renee retains some sense of dignity and self-worth even as she tries to reawaken her husband's slumbering libido. When Renee finally turns to her vibrator, it seems more like a statement of independence than a sign of weakness.
Maxine Bahns -- who, not incidentally, is Burns' real-life significant other -- is extremely appealing as Hope, a character very similar to the one she portrayed in The Brothers McMullen. It may turn out that she doesn't have much range as an actress. But she is very effective in the role of a free spirit who isn't entirely devoid of selfishness. Hope intends to move to Paris to attend graduate school, something she neglects to tell Mickey for as long as possible. It's never clear what she expects him to do in France if he accompanies her. (Drive a cab, maybe?) It is clear, however, that love will not be enough to keep her from going.
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On a technical level, She's the One marks a quantum leap forward for Burns as a filmmaker. This time, he has the benefit of a considerably larger budget, and that likely inspired a fair degree of self-confidence. With a casualness that is no doubt more apparent than real, he tosses off a series of panning shots to illustrate the passing of a rumor from brother to father, father to son, then brother to brother. The cleverness of the technique is impressive, but not so much that it distracts from the wit of the writing.
As Mickey, Burns evidences an easygoing charm and a blunt-spoken self-assurance. He, too, may be seriously limited as an actor, but that will never work against him as long as he writes such terrific roles for himself. He has written a far less charismatic character for Mike McGlone, another Brothers McMullen alumnus, to play. But that's okay: McGlone is fearless in his refusal to make Francis more conventionally sympathetic and less willfully self-delusional. John Mahoney is gruffly hilarious as Francis and Mickey's father, a retired firefighter whose attempts to offer sagacious life lessons are about as successful as the title character's matchmaking efforts in Emma. With Mr. Fitzpatrick as their role model and font of wisdom, it's a miracle that these boys have had any luck in love at all.
She's the One.
Directed by Ed Burns. With Jennifer Aniston, Maxine Bahns, Ed Burns, Cameron Diaz, John Mahoney and Mike McGlone.