Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Groomsmen

Edward Burns' The Groomsmen is about a group of lower middle class, thirtysomething Long Island guys who have made good. But it’s a precarious good, dependent not just on continued good luck and no sharp downturns in the economy, but on their friendships lasting and marriages holding together—all the main characters need each other to get by, leaning on each other for support, for help, for advice, for shared strength. Their prosperity, such as it is, and any hope of improving their lots in the future depend on their cooperating and getting along, with each other and with their wives and families, and that takes emotional resources these guys are not abundantly blessed with.

To survive and thrive these guys need to be able to control their emotions, particularly their anger. But being guys, American guys, Irish-American guys, controlling their emotions has never been a discipline they’ve mastered.

The best the smarter and more mature members of the group have managed to do has been to repress their feelings.

They’re one bad day, then, away from a meltdown that will completely fuck up their lives.

The guys are Mike (Jay Mohr), a bull-necked, bull-headed, bullshitting owner of a landscaping business who lives with his father in the house he grew up in, thinks, acts, and talks like he’s still in high school and wonders why his girlfriend has broken up with him; Dez (Matthew Lillard), who owns a bar and grille, is married to a beautiful and understanding wife, has two smart-mouthed but likeable and talented sons, continually lectures his friends on how they need to do what he’s done, marry, settle down, raise kids, and yet spends the movie desperate to recapture the glory and freedom of his days as a high school rock and roller; TC (John Leguizamo), the only one of the gang to have left home, but he only did it because he was running away from having to admit to his best friends that he’s gay; and Jimbo (Donal Logue), the at one-time most successful who has had that one bad day I mentioned and is now in total emotional and financial free-fall.

Then there’s Paulie, Jimbo’s brother and Mike’s cousin, whose upcoming wedding is the occasion of TC’s return, the guys’ becoming groomsmen, and, potentially, the bad day looming on the horizon for himself, Dez, TC, and Mike, that will destroy them the way Jimbo’s destroyed himself.

Paulie, played by writer-director Burns, is marrying Sue, his longtime live-in girlfriend, under duress. She’s five-months pregnant. The duress is all self-inflicted. It’s clear that he loves his bride-to-be, she’s adorable (because she’s adorably played by Brittany Murphy; maybe a shade too adorably played), and she loves him to death. But he’s worried he’s only marrying her to do the right thing by her and that’s not a good reason to get married.

What’s more likely is that her pregnancy has woken him up to the fact that it was past time for him to do the right thing—grow up. It was a rude awakening and it’s made him grumpy.

Irritable, disoriented, slightly groggy—he’s not been sleeping well—guilty, and resentful of Sue, he’s withdrawn emotionally and physically from her and washed his hands of all the wedding plans. He’s going to go through with it, but he’s treating it like an upcoming root canal.

His way of dealing with it is to pretend he's ignoring its approach. He’s apparently dealing with his impending fatherhood in the same way.

His refusal to talk about what’s bothering him, what he flatters himself is stoicism, makes him a constant pain in the ass. In his scenes with Sue, she’s a hurt puppy and he’s always kicking her out of his path. And in his scenes with his friends, he’s a wet blanket, one way or another finding a way to take all the fun out of the festivities they’re planning on his behalf.

This is painfully psychologically true to life. But what it means for The Groomsmen is that there’s a very unattractive emotional dead space at the center of the film that makes it hard to care about.

Paulie is such a passive-aggressive asshole that we start rooting for Sue to wise up and call off the wedding. Or we would if Burns hadn’t made her, despite her adorableness, something of a big whiny baby.

Burns’ real focus and interest is the groomsmen and he wants their story, the story of how they wise up and learn to forgive each other and themselves, to be the story. He’s very much helped in this by John Leguizamo as TC, who gives his scenes all the heart and soul Burns has denied his own scenes as Paulie.

But it's hard to make a subplot substitute for a main plot. Burns has structured the guys’ friendship in such a way that Jimbo and Paulie are the natural leaders and, with both of them taken out of the picture by their crises, TC and Mike have to step forward to assume the roles of leading men—Dez is what he’s always been, the group’s anchor—which is fine, but Burns doesn’t give them leading man work to do.

Mike plays out a story as comic second banana, his regular role in the group, and TC nursemaids Jimbo, which makes him the sidekick of a character who has downgraded himself from leading man to second banana and in the process almost erased himself from the story of his own life.

Ensemble pieces like The Groomsmen aspires to be need every character’s subplot to be compelling, but they still need a center, someone whose eyes serve as our eyes, whose story ties the others together, and The Groomsmen doesn’t have that not because Burns has made his leading man less than likeable, but because he doesn’t have any leading ladies.

I was talking to my pal Margot about Burns’ movies the other day and she told me she hates them. Burns, she says, is both contemptuous of women and disgusted by them. She pointed to the women characters in The Brothers McMullen and She’s The One.

But in The Groomsmen, and Looking for Kitty, Burns doesn’t seem to dislike women. He just treats them as somewhat beside the point, a very odd narrative strategy for a movie that’s about a man and a woman getting married.

As I said, Brittany Murphy is adorable as Sue, in a puppyish sort of way, but Burns doesn’t give Sue anything to say for herself. Most of what she says amounts to her acting as Paulie’s conscience. She never gets to make the case for herself as the right woman for Paulie or as an interesting person in her own right. What’s more, she doesn’t even get to make the case for Paulie. She doesn’t tell us why she would want to marry him or why she took up with him in the first place.

The other two wives, Dez’s wife Tina and Jimbo’s wife Julianna, played by the cheerfully down to earth Sherri Albert and the wonderful, madonna-esque Heather Burns respectively, don’t have much to say for themselves either.

Tina breezes in and out of the corners of the scenes of Dez at home, her only job to approve of her man and her boys while playfully keeping them in line. Julianna is allowed a couple of moments of anger and personal outrage. Her husband is doing a good job, wallowing in his self-contempt, of persuading her that he is contemptible. But she’s never allowed a scene in which she’s even tempted to act on her anger or give in to her outrage. And in the end her only job in the film is to welcome Jimbo home when he comes to his senses with a hug and a kiss.

I suppose it’s a form of contempt to treat women as though their role in life is to wait patiently for their husbands to grow-up and kiss their boo-boos in the meantime. For Burns, with The Groomsmen, what it is is an artistic shame.

Ninety years of American filmmaking ought to have shown him that it’s possible to write strong roles for women even keeping them within the traditional roles of understanding wife and patient mother.

The lack of a strong female voice is one of the reasons The Groomsmen is a less interesting and less successful movie than another middle-aged guys on the brink of a second adolescence ensemble piece, Beautiful Girls.

And it’s just not fair to compare The Groomsmen to Barry Levinson’s minor masterpiece, Diner. For one thing, the doings of thirtysomething men lackadaisically coming to the realization that it might be time for them to give up behaviors they should have outgrown by the time they graduated from high school don’t have the same urgency as the desperate measures taken by a group of twentysomethings trying to get their adult lives started.

But while I’d recommend that you go out and rent Beautiful Girls and Diner first, I’m not saying that The Groomsmen isn’t worth watching.

The fun, though, is in the acting, particularly in watching the performances of Lillard, Leguizamo, and Mohr.

I’d only seen Lilliard in one movie before, Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleash. He played Shaggy, and while he does a remarkable job of impersonating a cartoon character—or maybe because he did—it’s fun to see him playing a real human being with subtlety and insight.

Dez is the certifiable grown-up among the guys. He’s sensible, responsible, self-controlled, and happy with his lot because he knows he chose it and because he continues to make the best of it for himself and his family. But he married too young and possibly gave up his dreams too soon and there’s a part of him that wonders, What if, and another dangerous part of him that replies, It’s not too late. Why don’t you go find out?

Lillard gives Dez a casual maturity, a goodnatured dad-ness that’s convincing, but the lectures he delivers to his friends about the joys of marriage and fatherhood begin very quickly to sound like pep talks to himself, and Lillard has a wildness that sneaks into his eyes, especially when he picks up a guitar, which warns that he could let go and blow it all up on himself without a second’s thought.

Leguizamo is excellent, as he always is. In his way, he’s been playing cartoon characters too (Literally, in Ice Age and Ice Age II: The Meltdown; pretty darn close to literally in a recent episode of My Name is Earl), so it’s great to see him as the very human TC.

He does a nice job of showing how TC is one of the guys and not one guys. TC is every bit as much a macho swaggerer as his buddies, but Leguizamo reveals TC’s gayness in the openness of his eyes and where he puts the emphasis of his gaze and his thoughts. He also gets at how TC is still struggling to get over years of self-denial, repression, fear, and self-loathing in the instantaneous and reflexive self-corrections TC makes whenever he feels that a word or a gesture or a glance has revealed too much.

But it was Mohr who was the revelation to me.

I'm used to seeing him playing slicker than slick. In The Groomsman he plays Mike as a guileless, good-natured slob, something of a big baby of a man, in fact. He even walks a bit like a fat baby, although it's plain that Mike thinks he's walking like a tough guy. He carries himself the way he's seen weight-lifters carry themselves, with his chin tucked in and his arms out at his side like Popeye. He leads with his gut as if daring anyone who has a beef with him to take their best shot. Of course, the one time someone takes him up on it and punches him there, Mike crumples in a surprised, teary-eyed heap.

As angry and loud and belligerent as Mike is, he's a softy at heart, and he's shocked that anyone takes him seriously, which is of course part of his problem in life. No one takes him seriously because he can't take himself seriously.

Given that Mohr grew up in the mileu in which the movie takes place, that he was born to be a groomsmen (In the sense that some women are bridesmaids never the bride, some men are groomsmen never the groom), and only his intelligence and ability to tell a joke got him out of there, I wouldn't be surprised if his Mike is an impersonation of someone he went to school with.

If it is, it's a loving portrait.

Mohr makes Mike a blowhard and a goof but he also gives him a real heart. Mike thinks he has to be a tough guy, but he doesn't enjoy it. He'd rather be your friend than fight with you even while he's throwing a punch at you. For years he's been holding a grudge against TC and it's funny and touching when he realizes that the break in their friendship is his own, not TC's, fault.

Mohr plays the moment with a pure, sloppy, blockheaded joy that carries you away but also shows what a good actor can do when he gives up all his vanity.

The Groomsmen. Written and directed by Edward Burns. Starring John Leguizamo, Jay Mohr, Donal Logue, Matthew Lillard, Edward Burns, Brittany Murphy, and Heather Burns. 2006.


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