Ten years after winning the Sundance Grand Jury Prize for his film The Brothers McMullen, writer/director/actor Edward Burns continues to regurgitate the same worn-out themes of love, marriage, friendship and family. With his latest film The Groomsmen, once again, Burns chooses a quaint New York City suburban neighborhood as his setting, while also managing to surround his wooden acting with a decent supporting cast. However, with a script that has more pot holes than the Long Island Expressway, The Groomsmen lacks a tremendous amount of focus, thus leaving its audience desperately in search of an exit.
With only one week left until his wedding, Paulie (Burns) is in a funk. Though they've been together for awhile, according to his friends, the only reason Paulie is marrying Sue (Brittany Murphy) is because he accidentally got her pregnant. Regardless, something is bothering Paulie and, unless he can sort out his issues in one week's time, there's a chance he may make the biggest mistake of his life.
While Sue is off placing the finishing touches on her wedding, as well as preparing their house for the arrival of a new child, Paulie spends this time hanging out with his groomsmen at the local bar, the golf course and the softball field. His lack of enthusiasm towards the future frustrates Sue and the two end up arguing (about the same exact thing) over and over throughout the film. It's this sort of redundancy that ultimately prevents The Groomsmen from rising above the surface. Instead, Burns chooses to drown his characters in repetitive dialogue until, eventually, the lights come on and you realize an hour and a half of your life has just been wasted.
As Paulie struggles to come to terms with the rest of his life, those around him wind up using the impending nuptials as a platform to dissect their own personal issues. His unemployed brother Jimbo (Donal Logue) is on the verge of a depression, keeping secrets from his wife, while attempting to mask his resentment towards Paulie for achieving everything he hasn't. Then there's cousin Mike (Jay Mohr) who, at 33, has refused to escape his early 20's. Still living at home with Pop, Mike spends his time mowing lawns and stalking his ex-girlfriend. The only stability in this dysfunctional clan seems to come from Dez (Matthew Lillard), who appears content with the way his life turned out. Enjoying a successful marriage to his high school sweetheart, Dez is father to two young boys and owner of a local bar in town where the guys choose to spend most of their time.
It's at the bar where we first meet TC (John Leguizamo), an old friend who up and left eight years earlier without giving his buddies an explanation behind his departure. Of course, there's some mixed feelings about TC's return, especially from Mike who has been holding a grudge for years after TC stole his prized Tom Seaver baseball card back in the day. And, if you can ignore the fact that Jay Mohr cannot recite his lines without using the F-Bomb in place of every other word, then there's a pretty interesting relationship formed between these two, probably the most satisfying aspect of the film.
After being introduced to the main characters, the rest of the film sort of meanders from scene to scene, conversation to conversation, until, finally, there's a resolution -- though we're not sure, in fact, how we arrived at that resolution. A significant amount of time is spent discussing the secret lifestyle TC brought back home, along with some heavy emotional baggage. Jimbo slowly alienates himself from the group and his wife, drowning his sorrows with alcohol, while Paulie and TC take turns playing savior. Dez, however, uses this opportunity to try and reunite the garage band these guys played in when they were younger. He figures, if they can fine-tune a song or two, the gang can enjoy one last jam session as a tribute to Paulie on his wedding day. All the while, cousin Mike continues to make trips to his ex-girlfriend's house trying to convince her, in a very immature way, that she's making the biggest mistake of her life by leaving him.
Therein lies the main problem with The Groomsmen. With so much attention and development given to its supporting characters, Paulie's emotional journey becomes distorted. Between an uneven script and Burns' sub-par performance, our hero's arch is all but non-existent. One of the first rules of screenwriting is show don't tell. Unfortunately for The Groomsmen, Burns completely ignores this rule in his script, forcing its characters to say exactly what's on their mind, instead of showing us their pain, their indecision, their warmth and their determination to make things right.
This isn't to say Burns did not have good intentions with his script. There's definitely something powerful and intriguing about a person on the cusp of a tremendous amount of change, faced with life-altering decisions, yet stuck somewhere between their past and future, unsure if the road they're on is the right one. Perhaps Burns would have benefited from placing someone else in the lead role, enabling him to spend more time behind the camera, fleshing out the story so that it didn't come off as rushed, inconsistent and messy. Though, for one reason or the other, Burns continues to insist upon putting himself in his films when, honestly, the guy's not such a great actor -- especially when it comes down to conveying real, heart-felt emotions on screen.
Planning a wedding with a child on the way is a film in of itself. Nerves. Anxiety. Confusion. Money. Labor. Burns and Murphy spend a total of five or so scenes together, though it feels more like one as they're constantly talking about the same thing. Why doesn't Paulie seem excited about the wedding and his future? If he and Sue stopped arguing for five minutes, maybe we'd find out. It isn't until the last ten minutes of the film, after yet another big fight with Sue and a heart-to-heart with Dez, that Paulie finally decides getting married is the right decision. Yet, because so little time is spent showing us how and why Paulie wound up on that road, the audience is left confused and asking for better directions.