THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"NICE GUY JOHNNY"
Back in 1995, right around the time I established this very website, I ventured to a local cinema to see The Brothers McMullen, writer/director Edward Burns' Sundance-winning debut film. It was love at first sight. As an Irish Catholic male, there was much in the picture that I identified with, and Burns showed a real knack for smart, witty dialogue. Since that time, he has continued to make low-budget features, typically centered on relationships. I've liked all of them, and loved a few of them. (If you've never seen The Groomsmen, Netflix it immediately.) For his latest, Nice Guy Johnny, Burns is testing out a new indie distribution model: the film is bypassing arthouse theaters in favor of ready availability on DVD, iTunes, and on demand.
The Johnny of the title is late night radio sportscaster Johnny Rizzo, played by Adventureland's Matt Bush. Johnny is about to turn 25 and has promised his fiancée Claire (Anna Wood) that if he's not making $50,000 a year by that point, he'll quit the radio gig and take a higher paying but morally deadening job as a cardboard box factory supervisor. While in New York for the job interview - arranged by Claire's father, no less - his uncle Terry (Burns) convinces Johnny to accompany him to the Hamptons for some relaxation. Terry is a shameless playboy who eschews commitment in favor of casual affairs with married women. He actively tries to talk Johnny out of marriage, and even introduces him to a local tennis instructor named Brooke (Kerry Bishe of "Scrubs") in an effort to put his nephew on a different life track.
Of course, Brooke and Johnny hit it off. She's free spirited and encouraging of his aspirations. While he studiously avoids anything physical, Johnny is certainly impacted by meeting her, which leads to his central dilemma. On one hand, knowing Brooke makes him realize that he won't be happy if he sacrifices his sportscasting dreams; on the other, he doesn't want to turn into the kind of narcissistic, hedonistic mess that Uncle Terry is. Johnny has to decide whether to keep his promise to Claire and begin early domesticity or to throw it all away in favor of being true to himself.
Let's get my one negative issue out of the way. Nice Guy Johnny is fairly predictable. This is not the first movie in which a young man has to decide between settling down or following his dreams. Somewhat regrettably, the screenplay stacks the deck by essentially turning Claire into a materialistic shrew. She wants her economic way of life preserved, and her second biggest concern, after making sure Johnny gets to that job interview, is having him pick up a much-desired handbag from a swanky Manhattan store. There isn't a whole lot of suspense from wondering which path Johnny will choose. It would have been great if Claire was more understanding/supportive, so that he was being forced to choose between two equally desirable options.
That's a flaw, but Burns' movies have always been notable for the way he creates identifiable characters and places them in relatable situations. Nice Guy Johnny is no different, and in the end, that's what I liked about it. I've known guys like Johnny - guys who think their life has to be a certain way by a certain point, and if it's not, they panic. The film realistically portrays his angst, the way he spends so much time trying to squeeze himself into a predefined role that he nearly loses sight of his own true identity.
Matt Bush is terrific in the lead role, all nervous energy. His Johnny tries to do the right thing (hence his nickname) but ends up confused, and subsequently confused by his confusion. The actor makes us feel for this guy. I especially like his scenes with Burns, who delivers a very funny supporting performance. Johnny is the superego; Terry is all id. Their interactions provide most of the film's laughs. I also appreciated the sweet nature of the Johnny/Brooke relationship. Bishe is a revelation, taking a potentially one-dimensional "dream girl" role and investing it with unexpected, offbeat attitude. The actress finds something real inside Brooke. She's drawn to Johnny's genuine conscientiousness, while also respecting that it's the very thing that may drive him back to Claire.
Nice Guy Johnny thrives on the dynamics between Johnny and Brooke, and Johnny and Terry. Regardless of some plot predictability, watching them bounce off one another was a treat. I laughed, I got wrapped up, I saw things that were recognizable. To me, the best thing in any movie is to be able to somehow feel that it's capturing a little bit of basic human truth. Nice Guy Johnny knows that there are times in your life when you want to choose stability and other times when you want to risk stability in order to achieve something that's fundamentally important to you. In that sense, the film is as wise as it is warm and entertaining.
( out of four)
Nice Guy Johnny is unrated but contains some sexual content and language. The running time is 1 hour and 30 minutes.