In Hollywood, the man-child is king

The movies are overrun with big babies. The trend started in earnest with "Meet the Parents" and "Meet the Fockers," and reached its pinnacle, one might have thought, with "Wedding Crashers."

As it turns out, this was only the beginning. Since then, we have been subjected to such films as "Failure to Launch," "The Break-Up," and just this week alone, "You, Me and Dupree" and "The Groomsmen."

All of these movies have in common a cast of 30-something male layabouts whose adolescence is way past its expiration date. (In this company, Steve Carell's 40-year-old virgin is practically a senior citizen.) Faced with domesticity, they retreat into the confines of beery buddyhood. In the movie's terms, these sad-sack Peter Pans don't know what's good for them – i.e. wife, kids, a steady job. Behavior that might have looked cute in their 20s now looks pathetic.

Let's start with the most recent culprit. The Dupree in "You, Me and Dupree" is Owen Wilson, who seems to have made a cottage industry playing gangly goof-offs. Dupree is best friend to Carl (Matt Dillon), whose brand-new marriage to Molly (Kate Hudson) is a setback to their buddyness.

Carl works for his condescending real-estate mogul father-in-law (Michael Douglas), while Dupree doesn't really work at all. Through a series of mishaps, he ends up living with Carl and Molly, camping out on their couch and rapidly turning the house into a kind of frat lounge.

As is true in all of these movies, women are both nurturers and wreckers. Molly is a grade-school teacher and doting wife of near-infinite patience. She is also the enemy to all those guys who haven't shucked off their inner satyr. (No wonder so few of these films are satisfyingly romantic.) Dupree represents the imp that Carl, newly married, is afraid to uncork. Carl broke the guy rules by finding a wife, and now he must pay. As Dupree, in all his innocence, proceeds to dismantle his friend's life, we are supposed to see that he does it with Carl's guilty complicity.

I don't mean to imply that this film is any good or that it contains an ounce of genuine insight. But as a template for the big-baby genre, it's invaluable. One of the genre's distinguishing features is that the babies, like the women in these films, serve a dual function. In the case of Dupree, he is possessed of a strange wisdom despite all the pratfalls and posturing. Deep down he knows his friend has a good thing going with Molly, and his hijinks are engineered to bring them closer. He's a nonconformist in the service of conformity.

This is what makes "You, Me and Dupree" such a conventional experience. There is never a hint of malice in Dupree's screw-ups, and when, quite accidentally, of course, he becomes a self-help guru, we are meant to accept his success without the slightest irony. No con artist, he.

"The Groomsmen," set in suburban New York, is a more serioso gloss on the same guy themes. Paulie (Edward Burns, who also wrote and directed) is getting married in a week to his pregnant fiancée Sue (Brittany Murphy). His four groomsmen come together for a final buddy-a-thon.

There's Paulie's troubled brother Jimbo (Donal Logue), who can't face his caring wife; cousin Mike (Jay Mohr), who lives with his father and pines for an old girlfriend; Dez (Matthew Lillard), happily married with two sons; and T.C. (John Leguizamo), who left mysteriously eight years ago.

The upstanding Paulie can't shake the feeling that marriage will change him for the worse by separating him from his friends. In the course of the film, where each scene is pitched as a minitutorial in positive thinking, he is made to see the error of his ways. Old resentments are worked out, prejudices are eliminated, and a blissful ending beckons.

As in "You, Me and Dupree," male camaraderie is both hailed and assailed. It represents a noble rite of passage that all too easily becomes a case of arrested development. The women in this universe are doting, exasperated saints who rescue men from themselves. These films are saying that men, left to their own devices, are nothing more than porno-obsessed lunkheads. Only through the acquisition of a wife and family are they truly fulfilled. But as is often the case, this homey fulfillment has an obligatory feel to it – it lacks the rambunctious authenticity of the goofball moments.

As a writer-director, Edward Burns is as industrious as an occupational therapist. He makes sure each of his people is well positioned for happiness. He offers a comforting view of life and, on some level, a dishonest one, since we know that the problems raised in this film by infidelity, infertility, homosexuality, and alcoholism are not so easily papered over.

But at least Burns acknowledges that these issues exist. A movie like "The Break-Up," where Vince Vaughn's Gary and Jennifer Aniston's Brooke go mano a mano in their condo, stumps for a relationship between these two warriors that any idiot can see is doomed. Gary is yet another big baby who wedges his bulk into the couch and plays video games to improve his mind. In the real world, a guy like this would never last a minute with a culture vulture like Brooke, but the filmmakers put them together because they want to see smoke rise.

In "Failure to Launch," Matthew McConaughey's good-time Tripp is living with his parents while dating and dumping a series of bimbos. To get him out of the house, his parents hire Sarah Jessica Parker as the lure, with predictable consequences. The phenomenon of guys living with their parents into their 20s and 30s is a real one, and ripe for comedy. But "Failure to Launch" – an apt title – doesn't know what to make of it all beyond a few giggles and winks.

Great movies have been made in the past about male layabouts – like Fellini's "I Vitelloni" and Barry Levinson's "Diner," which demonstrated with a piercing poignancy the thwarted emotional possibilities of its young men.

But, for the most part, these new movies feature guys with about as much personality as a whoopee cushion. Why are we seeing so many of them? Maybe because it's tough to be an action hero in the modern world and so these yowling oafs of inaction are here to fill the void. Or maybe adolescence is being enshrined because the people who get to make movies now are as stunted as their protagonists. 'Dupree': C; 'Groomsmen': B

'You, Me and Dupree' is rated PG-13 for sexual content, brief nudity, crude humor, language and a drug reference. 'The Groomsmen' is rated R for pervasive language and brief nudity.

'You, Me and Dupree': Sex/Nudity: 16 scenes of innuendo or implied sex. Violence: 8 scenes, mostly slapstick. Language: 9 strong expressions, 25 milder. Drugs/Alcohol/Tobacco: 13 scenes of smoking and/or drinking.

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