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MOVIE REVIEW

Predictable but honest, `Groomsmen' is ritual Burns

There's no earthly reason why ``The Groomsmen" should have sneaked into the Harvard Square on Friday without publicity or advance screening, as if another Edward Burns guy-movie were something to be ashamed of. True, in the years since 1995's ``The Brothers McMullen" was the toast of the indie circuit, Burns has remade that debut several times , under different titles and to diminishing returns.

But there are painters who paint the same landscape over and over, and writers who write the same book. (And directors who make the same movie; it seems to work for Woody Allen.) It may be time to admit that Burns keeps returning to the theme of knuckleheaded men struggling to understand what women and the world want of them because this is simply what fascinates him .

In which case, ``The Groomsmen" is one of the better variations. That's not to say it's a great movie: just honest and unpretentious (as well as pat, talky, and predictable), about the difficulties of being a middle-aged boy in the outer boroughs of New York.

Paulie (Burns) is getting married; the yuppie-est of his group of boyhood friends on City Island in the Bronx, he's still unsure whether he's tying the knot because he loves his longtime girlfriend, Sue (Brittany Murphy ), or because she's pregnant.

The rest of his gang are in denial and/or arrested development. At 33, Cousin Mike (Jay Mohr) still mows lawns and lives with his Pops (John F. O'Donohue ). Paulie's older brother Jim (Donal Logue) is seething with an unnamed midlife crisis, bitterly lashing out at his wife (Heather Burns ) and friends until Paulie thinks twice about keeping him on as best man.

TC (John Leguizamo) returns for the wedding after eight years AWOL, towing a personal secret that doesn't seem that big a deal once it's out . The only non-stunted member of the group is Dez (Matthew Lillard), contentedly married and a father, yet still overly insistent that the old band get back together to rawk the wedding.

The soundtrack is pure 1985 -- Eddie Money and Loverboy are referenced -- and the emotional plot points play like oldies-radio too. Yet there's a nugget of eternal truth to Dez's line, ``Every time a guy gets married, he gets a divorce from his friends." The dilemmas here may not be artful but they're no less deeply felt.

Ironically, the director gives the worst performance in his own movie. We never figure out what makes Paulie tick, and after a while we don't much care. Mohr, on the other hand, creates in Cousin Mike a man-child both funny and pathetic, and Lillard, finally breaking out of his ``Scream"/ ``Scooby-Doo" box, rises gracefully to the challenge of playing a grown-up.

``The Groomsmen" may be low-cal Cassavetes or ``Secrets and Lies" for mooks, but Burns knows his turf. The marvel is that after seven films he's still finding fresh grass.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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