There are few indie filmmakers who are as polarizing as Ed Burns. Love his films or hate them, I don’t often run into anyone who is middle ground. Traditionally, I haven’t been a huge fan of his work (though I did enjoy Sidewalks of New York). Going into The Groomsmen, I’ll admit some bias that the film would not be a stellar experience. I’ll also openly admit that my preconceptions were completely wrong.
The Groomsmen tells the tale of soon-to-be-wed Paulie (Ed Burns) and the small group of friends and family that come together to help him with that next stage in his life. Cousin Mike (Jay Mohr) isn’t very far up in the maturity scale, older brother Jimbo (Donal Logue) is teetering between alcoholism and an unstable marriage, best friend Dez (Matthew Lillard) won’t let up on a reunion of the old band and T.C. (John Leguizamo) has just made his way back into town after years abroad. Mix the motley crew with a hormones-gone-nuts pregnant fiancé Sue (Brittany Murphy) and you’ve got the ingredients for the type of soul-searching drama that Ed Burns has become known for, good or bad.
The film deviates, however, from possible overwrought melodrama by its realism and the exemplary performances by its cast, which particularly showcases both Donal Logue and Matthew Lillard stepping farther from their comedic standards into more dramatic fare. Lillard’s Dez is the guy who grew up quicker than everyone else, establishing a family and then sitting back while his friends catch up. On sheer life experience he gets elevated to wise-man status, but it is to Lillard’s strength that you can see him go through the emotions of a young adulthood skipped over for full-on adult responsibilities. He doesn’t want to get the band back together for that last show for himself so much as to let his friends experience that last hurrah that he knows they’ll need someday. He also, despite his fond memories of the past, would not have his life any other way.
On the other end is Logue’s Jimbo, a man haunted by the value system of an older time and his inability to live up to such dated ideas as the older brother needing to be the first to marry, have a succesful job, own a house and have a kid or three. As Jimbo lashes out at Paulie while also pulling the roof down on his marriage, Logue allows you to get glimpses of the true motivation within, that being his own fears. Played any other way and Jimbo could come off as an unsympathetic a*****e, but despite all of Jimbo’s selfish attempts to the contrary, you can’t help but feel for the guy.
And I have to give credit to the film for portraying any doubts that Paulie may have regarding his upcoming marriage as more of a fear of the unknown then a need to “be free and sow wild oats” like so many other films show. It’s refreshing to see Paulie and Sue realistically squabble over things such as painting the kids room prior to the wedding, or express their own doubts honestly, because that’s how life really is.
Are there moments of predictability? Yes, there are a few telegraphed plot-points (T.C.’s reasons for being gone for so long without telling anyone where he was going for one), but they’re forgiven for being the types of decisions and moments that are predictable because they are real.
All told, The Groomsmen is a feel-good treat, held afloat by the performances of its accomplished cast. Its realistic portrayal of an almost extinct small-town dynamic between friends and family is not to be missed. Credit where credit is due, Mr. Burns, you’ve turned out an incredible piece of cinema. And I just lost my indie street cred for publically praising your work…