In the decade since he won Sundance and scored a modest commercial hit with The Brothers McMullen, writer, director, actor, and former Entertainment Tonight PA Ed Burns has churned out a series of thinly disguised retreads of his promising debut feature, to diminishing financial and artistic returns. In his latest, Burns plays a Long Island newspaperman reunited with a gaggle of family and friends on the eve of his wedding. Myriad crises and displays of post-post-adolescent bad behavior ensue, from the underachieving cousin (Jay Mohr) who pines for his clearly disinterested ex to the disheveled older brother (Donal Logue) whose own marriage has hit the skids. For good measure, there’s also a long-absent childhood pal (John Leguizamo) whose admission of homosexuality is played as though it were a Crying Game–style shocker. At the center of it all rests Burns, that unwavering avatar of red-blooded Irish Catholic masculinity, dispensing sage lessons in dude-ology while wondering if he himself is really ready for “I do.” Fatally conventional in nearly every respect, the movie would be easy to dismiss were it not for Burns’s frustrating knack for inserting unexpectedly truthful moments amid all the dross. Midway through The Groomsmen, a happily married-with-children barkeep (Matthew Lillard) delivers a wise and lyrical monologue about the joys of fatherhood; and there are a number of affecting, well-played scenes mixed in with many others that make you wonder if there was anyone on set to give the actors guidance. So Burns remains an enigma: After six features, it’s still impossible to tell if he’s a filmmaker with something to say or merely one of the longest-running novelty acts in modern movies.
Good news for horror fans: Six years after Haley Joel Osment first saw dead people, the gimmick is finally safe for romantic comedy. Surely the end of the cycle is nigh. Reese Witherspoon stars as overworked internist Elizabeth, the latest movie character who can’t quite figure out if she’s dead or alive, after a 26-hour stretch at the hospital leads to a possibly fatal car accident. When lost and lonely David (a bewildered Mark Ruffalo) moves into Elizabeth’s San Francisco apartment, he soon discovers that he’ll have to share its spacious accommodations with a peculiarly energetic ghost playing the role of mother, AA counselor, and overall killjoy. Elizabeth, of course, is only visible to David, setting up lots of confused third-party reaction shots, awkward physical comedy, and repeated jokes about “seeing someone.” Witherspoon’s oft charming perkiness is merely patronizing here, but mid-’90s MTV staple Donal Logue steals every scene he’s in as an ethically challenged therapist. Fraught with anxiety about the spiritual consequences of overwork, Just Like Heaven feels contemporary enough, but the movie’s level of imagination is best captured by its painfully literal-minded soundtrack, which includes such topical material as “Just My Imagination,” “I Put a Spell on You,” and the theme from Ghostbusters.