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'Groomsmen' Is One of Tribeca Festival's Feel-Good Films

There's nothing like putting sexy star Brittany Murphy in a pregnant suit and wedding dress to attract an audience for an independent film with a lower-than-low budget (even by indie standards).

Add a motley crew of funnymen playing blue-collar, 30-something friends with Peter Pan complexes and a variety of secrets weighing them down as they gear up for one of the gang's nuptials and you've got "The Groomsmen."

Ed Burns wrote, directed and starred in the film, which premiered this weekend at the Tribeca Film Festival and opens in New York and Los Angeles this summer, right in the thick of wedding season.

"The Groomsmen" is one of several comedies — some romantic, some charming, some dark — that have been featured at this year's festival.

Burns, whose previous projects include "The Brothers McMullen" and "Sidewalks of New York," plays the soon-to-be-married Paulie, with Murphy as his expectant fiancée Sue.

Matthew Lillard, John Leguizamo, Jay Mohr and Donal Logue are the groomsmen, and Heather Burns (of "Miss Congeniality" fame and no relation to the director) plays Paulie's frustrated sister-in-law.

"It's about this unwillingness people have these days to grow up," Burns said on her way into the premiere.

The movie, shot for a meager $3 million, looks a bit like a hybrid of "Old School" and "Brothers McMullen." It's a likeable and often funny film that had a mostly appreciative audience for its debut, in spite of some uneven acting, a Hollywood ending and an all-too-familiar storyline, which will look all the more familiar to those who have seen Burns' previous movies.

"I make personal films," Burns said as he walked the red carpet into the premiere with his supermodel wife, Christy Turlington. "I'll always draw from my environment, but rarely from specific experiences."

He said he was inspired by friends of his who have gotten married but struggled with the maturing process that goes along with such a big life change.

While Burns' contribution to the genre is good, it can't compete with the festival's standout, "The TV Set," a farcical look at the inner workings of network television and the evolution of pilots starring Sigourney Weaver and David Duchovny.

Duchovny is wonderful as leading man Mike, a bright, earnest and frequently discouraged sitcom writer who watches in horror as his half-hour show, "The Wexler Chronicles," goes from a pithy, nuanced comedy to a silly, trite melodramedy before it even lands on the air.

The former "X-Files" star plays the part with just the right mix of wry wit and straight-man seriousness, all delivered with priceless (often cringing) facial expressions. You can't help but feel deeply sorry for his character even as you laugh at the growing quandary he finds himself in.

"It's the nature of the business," Duchovny said before he went into the premiere this weekend. "It changes — sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse — and can be completely different from what you imagined."

Weaver is brilliant and hilarious as the antagonist, Lenny, a deadpan network executive who is relentless in her quest to dumb down any and all material she gets her hands on. Her character has some of the funniest, most absurd lines in the film.

"Truthfully, original scares me a little," Lenny tells Mike at one point when she's trying to convince him to drop his premise that the main character's brother has killed himself. "You don't want original. We have research from other shows that suicide is, like, depressing to 82 percent of everybody."

During another scene, she disgustedly describes his show as "so f—-ing artsy" and "smart" and Mike himself as "Blue State."

And when the network's reality show "Slut Wars" grabs sky-high ratings (sample: "For one of these sluts, the journey ends here tonight ... Carla, put your clothes on and get out of here"), Lenny tries humility: "Let's face it: If you can't sell 15 sluts in the Caribbean, you've got problems."

Don't call her the villain of the movie, however — at least not to Weaver's face.

"I don't like that term," she said jovially before going into the premiere. "I play a woman convinced that it's my job to keep any complexity out of the material. She very sincere and that's what's so scary."

Writer and director Jake Kasdan's expertly cast ensemble also includes Justine Bateman as Mike's pregnant but supportive wife, Judy Greer as his saccharine, selfish agent and Ioan Gruffudd as the BBC reporter brought from across the pond to win back Thursday prime-time numbers for the fictitious Panda Network.

"I'm very familiar with doing pilots, obviously," said Bateman, who starred in the 1980s sitcom "Family Ties" and just finished her latest pilot with Patricia Heaton. "To an outsider, it seems exaggerated, but that does wind up happening."

Another amusing festival offering in the same genre is "Mini's First Time," a dark comedy with a twisted heroine played by Nikki Reed that also stars Alec Baldwin, Luke Wilson, Carrie-Anne Moss and Jeff Goldblum.

The movie follows the teenaged Mini through her game-playing, backstabbing rich suburban life of achieving as many "firsts" as possible — the more manipulative, brazen and wicked, the better.

The Nick Guthe film is vaguely reminiscent of "American Beauty" — if it had been a lot lighter, that is. "Beauty" star Kevin Spacey is actually a co-producer on the film.

"Although the themes in this movie are serious, it is first and foremost a comedy — and a sick one at that," Guthe told the audience in introducing the film at this week's premiere.

Another of the festival's world premieres, "Akeelah and the Bee" — which already opened in theaters over the weekend and landed the No. 8 spot at the box office with $6.25 million in sales — is less straight comedy, more comedy-drama, but a delightful one all the same.

It stars Keke Palmer as Akeelah, an 11-year-old wordsmith from a poor Los Angeles neighborhood who goes all the way to the National Spelling Bee in Washington, Laurence Fishburne as her intellectual but melancholy coach and Angela Bassett as her defiant, tough-love mother.

Not all of Tribeca's comedic fare shows promise, however. Though it sounded endearing, "I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With" — with Jeff Garlin at the helm as director, producer, writer and star — flounders and flops through a series of off-kilter jokes, badly delivered lines and unsympathetic characters.

Lenny in "The TV Set" wouldn't be at all surprised that a movie with a title about eating cheese would have a hard time wooing audiences. What would do the trick, she might point out, is a different kind of cheese: a reality show with bimbos in bikinis on a tropical island.

Them's the breaks. As Weaver's character says during a giddy, industry-party toast: "To 'Slut Wars!'"