Monday, April 14, 2008

Final Thoughts on "Chuck and Larry"


A fireman begs his best friend to pretend to be a gay couple with him so that they can reap financial benefits, but have to keep up a deception when an official comes around to investigate the veracity of their claim.

Sounds like last summer's movie I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, doesn't it?

Actually it's a 2004 Australian film entitled Strange Bedfellows, starring Paul Hogan (Vince) and Michael Caton (Ralph). Yes, it has the exact same premise as Chuck and Larry. (The last I heard, the producers of Strange Bedfellows were suing the producers of Chuck and Larry.) Strange Bedfellows was written by Dean Murphy (who also directed the film) and Stewart Faichney.

Chuck and Larry was accused of being a mass of stereotypes with a message of tolerance tacked on at the end. Actually, that description is more apt of Bedfellows, which is pretty much the movie everyone was afraid Chuck and Larry would be.

Bedfellows takes place in a small town, while C&L takes place in a big city. Bedfellows begins with Hogan, hit with a huge tax bill, reading a story in the paper about a (mythical) law allowing tax benefits to same-sex couples. As in C&L, one of the two guys seems more live-and-let-live about gays than the other.

In Bedfellows, the two men take photos of the town "faggot" (not referred to as such, although "poofter" is used now and then throughout the film) or hairdresser, a very stereotypical gay male, so that they can mimic his mannerisms for the tax official. There's a twist when it turns out that the effeminate man is actually straight, or at least having sex with half the women in town. While this bit could have made the point that there are girlish straight men and masculine gay guys, it's all ruined by the revelation that the hairdresser's mannerisms are all put on. He acts gay because "it's expected of" him and because he can sneak around having sex with half of the wives and daughters in town. Sure, as if any straight guy would want to be known as the town faggot!

Perhaps the worst scene in the movie has the straight if nelly-acting hairdresser teaching our two heroes how to "swish." At least Chuck and Larry doesn't have an equivalent sequence. The hairdresser also says that gay men refer to themselves as "girls" and "she." Indeed in a gay bar scene later on, there are leather men calling themselves "girls." I don't think so. (There may still be some gay men who do this, but they are a dying breed and they are definitely not leather men or bears.)

The gay bar scene presents most of the customers as freaks of one sort or another -- or at least wants the viewers to see them that way for the alleged comedic value. One perfectly "normal" man has a conversation with Hogan at the bar but he's vastly outnumbered by much more "fabulous" characters, all of whom are at least likable and who seem a bit perturbed when Ralph makes some comment about what's stranger than being a "poof." Still thinking he's gay, they pause and then giggle.

Unlike C&L, in Bedfellows there is no scene when an official suggests how wrong and obscene it would be for straight people, liars, to take advantage of laws supposed to benefit a minority group that has had to struggle for its rights for decades.

At the end of the film, we learn that Ralph's daughter is gay. While her girlfriend thinks her father is cool, the daughter herself, besides being closeted, seems full of internalized homophobia. "I don't want you to be that way," she says, because gay people are laughed at behind their backs. I can understand why a gay child might be uncomfortable with a gay parent -- most children don't even want to think of their parents as being sexual, gay or straight -- but her reaction is decidedly negative and even old-fashioned. You imagine that if a gay gene is ever isolated, this gal would want any kids she might have to be "straightened" out. Of course, she's only onscreen for five minutes so we learn very little about her. She's introduced to set up the ending, and her complaining about "being laughed at" is the springboard for her father's speech. But it makes her seem a very regressive character.

After learning his daughter is gay -- and not before -- Ralph gives the well-intentioned "tolerance" speech at the end of the film. He makes the point that everyone has known him and Vince for many years and what they do in the privacy of their homes shouldn't make any difference. I won't go into details, but it all comes down to the fact that Ralph and Vince really love each other -- aww-- albeit not in the romantic or sexual sense. The tax official, Russell (Pete Postlethwaite), who may or may not be gay, sort of forgives them and let's them off the hook because he hasn't seen "a stronger bond or a greater love between two men in many a year." So let's see, two straight guys can love each other more than two gay men who are in love with each other?

Strange Bedfellows may mean well -- or at least it tries to have some pro-gay sentiments to offset all the stereotypical crap -- but it just doesn't get it. The film is well-acted by all, has some mildly amusing moments, but it's too stupid and even offensive to make a positive impression.

So now we come to I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, which -- believe it or not -- is an improvement. Very few gay people that I know have actually sat through the movie. I think nobody actually wanted to go to a theater, plunk down twelve dollars, and possibly have to sit through the picture with a bunch of homophobic teens making crass remarks all the while.

Curiously, C&L, while it'll never be one of my favorite films, and there were aspects of it that I really disliked, was not nearly as bad as I had feared. DISCLAIMER: Remember that I didn't watch this in a theater with a straight audience, but at home with a gay friend, which probably affected my perception of the film to a certain degree. Had I seen it with a straight -- especially a straight homophobic audience -- laughing at or commenting on the stereotypes, I would have found it a much worse experience than watching my borrowed library copy at home.

First of all, contrary to popular belief GLAAD did not "endorse" Chuck and Larry. You can find my New York Blade story and interview with GLAAD's president here, which explains what really happened and how GLAAD tried to improve the film and may have helped to do so.

Okay, Adam Sandler's not a horrible-looking guy, but it's pretty comical (in the wrong sense) that he would wind up with half a dozen gorgeous twenty-something babes in his bedroom at the same time, as he does early in the movie. The real Adam Sandler, a billionaire movie star, probably has no problem getting babes, but an average-looking firefighter on the cusp of middle-age? But that's just typical Adam Sandler, aging-stud stuff that all geeky movie comics from Bob Hope to Jim Carrey indulge in. And especially in a movie with a sort of gay theme, Sandler probably felt he had to establish the character's heterosexuality in an as over-the-top way as possible. That is also the reason for a really stupid scene in which the lady social worker who helps them (Jessica Biel) let's Chuck (Sandler) touch her naked boobs so she can prove to him that they're real. Sure -- as if a professional woman would allow a male -- or any -- client to do such a thing!

On the positive side, the film makes fun of homophobes, and while there's a silly sequence when Chuck and Larry try to find some "gay garbage" to fool the domestic partnership inspector, they never swish around and act stereotypically gay as the guys do in Strange Bedfellows. Chuck makes a speech about how ugly and hurtful the word "faggot" is, comparing it to someone calling him "kike." I liked the gay mailman, and I especially liked the way the film winds up with a gay wedding instead of a straight one.

On the negative side, I could have done without the way Larry's supposedly gay young son Eric was handled. He hits all the stereotype buttons and literally screams when he looks at a nude female centerfold. Eric and his father get into a fight with another man and his kid, not because of the latter pair's homophobia but because they say Eric is gay (but the film is supposed to be saying that it's okay to be gay). After he comes out of the closet, butch firefighter Duncan (Ving Rhames) turns kind of "queeny" -- he sings "I'm Every Woman" in the shower -- the tiresome old notion that masculine gay men just "butch it up" but are big "fairies" inside. Then there's the whole business about whether it's Chuck or Larry who's "the woman" in the relationship, and the social worker taking Chuck out for a "girls' day," which she would hardly say to a masculine gay guy like Chuck. And I don't believe for one second that the gay community of New York would come to see Chuck and Larry as some kind of gay heroes or icons, especially after they've been exposed as straight. Sandler socks one of the homophobes outside of the gay bar, but I would have liked it better if an actual gay character had thrown the punch. (I have to admit that the fireman's calender that ends the film is kind of funny.)

Of course, some of the good points that are made about gays are kind of blunted or made pointless because Chuck and Larry aren't really gay (if only the film had had the courage to have one of them sincerely come out of the closet at the end of the picture.)

There are people who think Chuck and Larry is a lot tougher on Asians (part Filipino Rob Schneider's minister, who says "loom" for "room") and very obese people (the funny-gross opening with the guys rescuing an enormous home bound man from a burning building) than it is on gays.

Would I have gotten my old Gay Activist Alliance buddies to picket this film the way we did Cruising, A Different Story and Windows? -- Maybe not. While I can understand the negative gay reaction to the film, I can't quite understand why even straight reviewers were so brutal.

Was it because they objected to the stereotyping -- or, privately, to the message of tolerance and gay marriage equality at the end? Considering this was an Adam Sandler film geared toward a young, unsophisticated audience, it could have been much, much worse.

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry was written by Barry Fanaro, Alexander Payne, and Jim Taylor. The director was Dennis Dugan, who had a role in the execrable "gay" movie Norman ... Is That You? in 1976.

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