Edward Burns, Jennifer Aniston, Maxine Bahns, Mike McGlone

When the Fitzpatrick boys go fishing with their father, a Saturday ritual they have followed for years, they sail Brooklyn's briny seas in a boat called The Fighting Fitzpatricks. That could just as easily be the title of this movie, an engagingly talky romantic comedy about how the Fitzpatrick brothers (Burns and McGlone) and their pop (Frasier's John Mahoney) learn that machismo's rules are not inviolable: A man doesn't always have to do what a man's gotta do.

The brothers, a year apart, could hardly be more different. Cab driver Burns, the elder, is still lost in emotional traffic after coming home three years previously to find his fiancée (Cameron Diaz) entwined with another man. McGlone is a Wall Street hotshot with a big salary, a loft apartment and a spirited wife (Friends' Aniston, who seems more diminutive here). Each sibling, though, has a reckless side. Burns marries a graduate student-waitress (Bahns) just 24 hours after she hails his cab. McGlone cheats on Aniston with Diaz, meanwhile fending off his wife's sexual entreaties by telling her he's going through "a down cycle."

How these two brothers resolve their love lives makes for a smart, well-acted second offering by actor-writer-director Burns, whose first film was the similar-themed The Brothers McMullen. True, Burns's women don't have the same verve as his men (which is why, with the exception of Diaz, the male stars come off better here) and in focusing on working-class Irish-Catholic New Yorkers, he's mowing a narrow path. But Woody Allen has gone pretty far doing the same with intellectual Jewish New Yorkers, and considering Burns's amusing dialogue and his own whiny, high-pitched delivery and straight-from-Noo-Yawk accent, the comparison isn't really all that far off. (R)

Shelley Long, Gary Cole

Last summer's The Brady Bunch Movie was a distinctive little satire that managed to turn the laughably inane TV sitcom, which made Mr. Ed look like Molière, into a parody of 70s kitsch. This sequel, in which Tim Matheson turns up as Mrs. Brady's long-lost first husband, is content to be your standard dumb comedy, not ashamed to bring in Zsa Zsa Gabor for a cameo.

The same cast returns to play the various Bradys. These aren't exactly roles that deepen with time. Cole repeats his dead-on impersonation of the late Robert Reed as paterfamilias Mike; Long, as mother Carol, wisely makes no attempt to out-act her lacquered blonde wig; and Jennifer Elise Cox, as frumpy middle sister Jan, is a textbook study of an American suburban teenage female neurotic. Jean Smart, so funny as a sex-starved neighbor in the first movie, is sorely missed. (PG-13)

Alison Elliott, Ellen Burstyn, Marcia Gay Harden, Will Patton

A young woman (Elliott) newly sprung from the state penitentiary after serving five years for manslaughter sets off to make a fresh start in a small Maine town called Gilead. One doesn't have to have spent many Sundays with a hymnal open to "There Is a Balm in Gilead" to catch the significance of the hamlet's name. Whether the place will prove balm or bane to Elliott is at the heavy heart of this well-intentioned tear-jerker, a movie financed by Gregory Productions, a company owned by a Roman Catholic order. Which helps explain why The Spitfire Grill is about learning to believe in the basic goodness of people. Be sure to check all cynicism at the ticket booth.

The first feature film by writer-director Lee David Zlotoff, creator of the MacGyver TV series, Spitfire plays a lot like a Hallmark Hall of Fame special. It's polished and offers many lovely, small moments, but the whole may strike you as cloying, particularly if you are not of a mind to be manipulated—Kleenex alert—by the movie's excessively symbolic ending.

Elliott, who starred last year in The Buccaneers on PBS-TV, is absolutely terrific—gritty and touchingly believable—as the hurting young woman unable to leave her past behind. Burstyn, playing the gruff owner of the diner where Elliott works, clomps around as if she were Katharine Hepburn doing Mammy Yokum. But we're certainly not in Dogpatch here. (Spitfire Grill won the Audience Award earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival.) (PG-13)

>Shelley Long

BACK ON THE LAUGH TRACK

It has been nine years (not to belabor a string of bad movies, including Frozen Assets, and a dud TV series, Good Advice) since Shelley Long left her five-year sitcom run as Diane Chambers—the nervous, cerebral barmaid on Cheers—to find film fame. But it took playing another small-screen character, perpetually sunny matriarch Carol Brady, for her to hit big-screen pay dirt in 1995's The Brady Bunch Movie, a role she's now reprising in A Very-Brady Sequel. "What a treat," she says, "to play someone who is happy with her life." Long, 47, makes the same claim about her own life in L.A., where she lives with her husband of 14 years, Bruce Tyson, an investment adviser, and their daughter Juliana, 11. She still keeps in touch with old castmates, who, like her, have stumbled at the box office (Woody Harrelson's Kingpin) and enjoyed critical success (Rhea Perlman's Matilda) since the Cheers bar closed in 1993. "We shared important parts of our lives together," says Long, who spoke with Shelley Levitt from PEOPLE. "That's always going to be a special bond."

In light of the bumps you've hit on the way to a film career, do you ever regret your decision to leave Cheers?

I left to make movies. But I also felt I needed more time with my family. So I have absolutely no regrets. There are always going to be highs and lows in your career. Though I'd like it to be all just good, consistent work, we learn from the ups and downs.

What appeals to you about the Brady movies?

They allow you to laugh at those bumps in the road. And Carol Brady has a great sense of humor; she has fun, she's sexy. And she's not neurotic.

It seems you've helped inspire a Brady fashion boom.

I've walked into stores and thought I was in the Brady wardrobe room. The colors and designs, right down to the daisies, are all there. It's hilarious.

  • Contributors:
  • Leah Rozen,
  • Tom Gliatto,
  • Shelley Levitt.