The Brothers McFailure

For a musician, Tom Petty is one shrewd son-of-a-gun. He knows that movie soundtracks these days frequently become more popular than the movies they accompany. A motion picture can be a total box-office dog, but the barrage of media hype preceding its release is sure to emphasize the flick's signature tunes. The soundtrack of The Crow: City of Angels nosed into the Top 10 pop- album chart weeks before the movie premiered. And the two best-selling jazz albums recently are the soundtracks for Leaving Las Vegas and Kansas City. No matter how godawful the movie proves to be, the soundtrack benefits from the film's multimillion-dollar advertising campaign.

Petty, playing all the angles, linked up with a hot young independent filmmaker, The Brothers McMullen's Ed Burns, who was about to lens his first big Hollywood production. Burns is one of those classic little-guy-hits-the-jackpot stories; he made McMullen for a low-five-figure pittance and the film went on to garner a small fortune at the box office. The release of his followup, a three-million-dollar Hollywood undertaking starring hot young properties Cameron Diaz (The Mask) and Jennifer Aniston (of TV's Friends), is sure to attract beaucoup press coverage. And perspicacious Mr. Petty just happens to have six original compositions prominently placed on the soundtrack. Petty benefits from all the movie promotions and, should the film become a hit, walks away from the project with 90 minutes of material from which to cull videos. It's a no-lose proposition: If the movie does well, Petty rides its coattails. If it flops, he distances himself and markets the songs on their own merits.

Unfortunately, the latter outcome seems more likely than the former. You'll remember Petty's tunes long after you've forgotten Burns's flick. Burns succumbs to the dreaded sophomore jinx in a big way; She's the One is a glossy but far less endearing rehash of McMullen. It's as if Burns, in a bad mood, simply rewrote the Brothers script, deleting much of the charm and ingratiating humor and amping up the meanness.

In McMullen, three bickering Irish brothers came together at their father's funeral just as Mom flew off to be with the man she'd really loved for years. The trio of siblings, two of them played by Ed Burns and Mike McGlone, discussed their women problems over copious quantities of beer. Dad's still alive in She's the One, and he forms the third leg of a bickering threesome -- "the fighting Fitzpatricks," people call them -- who spend most of their screen time discussing women problems over copious quantities of beer. Papa Fitz, played by John Mahoney of TV's Frasier, dispenses dubious advice to his two headstrong sons Mickey (writer-director Burns) and Francis (McGlone). As in The Brothers McMullen, Burns's real-life honey Maxine Bahns plays his on-screen love interest.

Where McMullen exuded a kind of laid-back warmth, She's the One leaves you cold. You forgave Bahns her spotty acting in the first film because it sort of fit with the movie's overall do-it-yourself vibe. But surrounded by polished pros like the film's two other female leads, Diaz and Aniston, Bahns's amateurish performance becomes a major liability. It doesn't help matters any that Burns has cast her in the role of Hope (the name gives you some idea of the subtlety of Burns's writing), a perpetually smiling New York City barmaid who impulsively marries free-spirited taxi driver Mickey less than 24 hours after meeting him in his cab. The screenplay sets up Mickey as a guy wary of women because he's been seriously burned in the recent past; then, without offering the slightest clue that he's capable of such a thing, has him run off and tie the knot with a woman he meets when he picks her up as a fare. Sure, it could happen, but for a filmmaker to successfully pull off such an abrupt about-face, he needs to first provide some hint that the character is capable of such a transition. Otherwise it feels like the cheap plot device that it is. Ditto Hope's omission of one small detail during her whirlwind courtship with Mickey -- that she will soon be packing up and moving to Paris.

Mickey's sibling, Wall Street wheeler-dealer Francis, has problems of his own. He has fallen out of love with his sex-starved wife Renee (Jennifer Aniston) and into a dysfunctional affair with high-gloss call girl Heather (Cameron Diaz), the woman who broke Mickey's heart. Part of Francis's problem stems from his adherence to the muddled advice of his father, whose relationship with the boys' mother has gone farther south than he realizes.

The elder Fitzpatrick's cardinal rule -- always do what makes you happy -- may have contributed to Burns's filmmaking downfall as well. Burns may like writing, directing, and playing the lead in his films, but he could have benefited substantially from an outsider's perspective on the screenplay and the casting decisions. (You can't escape the suspicion that executive producer Robert Redford granted Burns unprecedented autonomy because The Brothers McMullen, which seemingly came out of nowhere to take Redford's Sundance Film Festival by storm in 1995, became such a Cinderella story, embodying all the independent filmmaking precepts the Sundance Kid espouses.) Burns seems more interested in securing a healthy payday for his loyal inner circle than in making the best film possible. She's the One has slickness going for it, but the lines aren't as funny, the characters aren't as believable, and the overall atmosphere isn't as convivial as they were in The Brothers McMullen. Whatever his motivation, Burns follows the pattern established a year earlier by Kevin Smith, who achieved Sundance-darling status with his hilarious ultra-low-budget debut Clerks in 1994, only to follow it up with the multimillion-dollar rodent Mallrats. It will be interesting to see if the back-to-back washouts of Smith and Burns tarnish Sundance's rising star.

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