Saturday, August 04, 2007

Brokeback Big Daddy: I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - To begin this entry, I would like to express my condolences toward all the people affected by the I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis, including the six (so far discovered, anyway) dead. I can only imagine how terrifying it must have felt being on that bridge at the time it started to show signs of being about to collapse. More worrying, of course, are the reports coming in that indicate that certain authorities had an inkling about the bridge's problems years ago, and that problem were still being repaired when it went down. (Apparently, this isn't an isolated incident after all.)

Of course, traffic going to some of the major venues around that area will become a nightmare---and that fact isn't allayed in the least by the fact that it may take years before that bridge will be fully repaired. Safe to say, it's a real mess (and maybe one that could have been avoided, from what I'm hearing and reading in the news about the incident). At least, I suppose, it'll be a safe nightmare (hopefully) compared to the nightmare of being trapped on a collapsing bridge.


Compared to real-life terror and tragedy, then, discussing movies I've seen---especially one that was burned up by a projector light bulb well before it ended---will inevitably seem insufferably trivial. But I just felt like I had to acknowledge the Minneapolis bridge collapse in some way---so this blog doesn't seem solipsistic all the time.

Yes, you read part of that last paragraph correctly. Today a friend and I went to see Werner Herzog's new film Rescue Dawn, but in its last third, right after one of its characters gets a major wound inflicted by Laotians on one of his legs, the film suddenly seemed to break up right in front of all of our eyes like an effect right out of the late Ingmar Bergman's Persona. Within the context of the action happening on the screen, no way was it intentional, and sure enough, the manager of the theater we were at came in a few minutes later and told us that it would take about 1½ hours to fix. First time that's ever happened to me! So he compensated us by giving us two free passes, one to see another movie that day, and the other...well, on the house, I guess.

I still haven't yet seen the first two Jason Bourne films (Netflix has both on wait), so I didn't feel comfortable seeing the new Bourne Ultimatum (although I do hope to, eventually, because Jason Bourne, from what I've heard about his previous cinematic adventures, seems like an interesting action hero: a killing machine trying to discover his past and maybe regain some of his humanity). Nothing else looked all that appealing to either of us, but we both felt it'd probably be better to see something on the same day and then get the second pass afterward.

Thus, we ended up seeing that new Adam Sandler/Kevin James gay comedy I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (** out of ****). That's how lackluster the rest of the choices other than Bourne Ultimatum were, at least to me. (I guess perhaps we could have just seen something we saw already, like Live Free or Die Hard; maybe I would have enjoyed that movie more on a second viewing, who knows?)

How was it? Well, it's definitely not great. But when it comes to recent Adam Sandler movies, there's a sincerity and sweetness about him underlying his (sometimes welcome) fratboy rage to which I find myself deeply responding, sometimes in spite of the overwhelming critical-elite consensus against him. Such was the case with the mostly reviled Click last year, and such is the case in both Reign Over Me (in which Sandler and Don Cheadle couldn't overcome a gimmicky, unconvincing script and dull direction) and now Chuck and Larry this year.

Like Reign Over Me, Chuck and Larry is a well-meaning if clumsy attempt to say something both funny and meaningful on topical subject matter. In the case of Chuck and Larry, the filmmakers---director Dennis Dugan and screenwriters Barry Fanaro and (believe it or not) Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor---are trying to not only strike a progressive mainstream stance toward homosexuality in America, but also deconstruct and satirize homophobic attitudes, especially the super-macho attitudes of Chuck and Larry's fellow firefighters and also that of rampant boob-chaser Chuck himself. Taking two straight gays, contriving to force them to act gay by adopting the most stereotypical notions of "gay" behavior, and then getting them to start reacting to people as if they really are gay, thus undercutting all those cliches---sounds like a promising idea to me.

Once in a while, the movie actually spins a few genuinely clever and cathartic laughs out of it (including a gag that pokes fun at the fallen-bar-of-soap-in-a-male-shower cliche). Overall, though, Chuck and Larry isn't what I'd call a laugh riot. Some of the gags feel so typically Sandler-ish---in other words, loaded with amateurish smarm towards deliberately grotesque supporting characters---that the sting is taken right out of them simply because of how overfamiliar they feel. And the Rob Schneider-as-Japanese-man bit is as gratuitously offensive as Mickey Rooney playing a Japanese man in Breakfast at Tiffany's; I didn't know that kind of racist caricature was still considered funny these days. (There's a bit more casual racism with Ving Rhames playing a scary axe murderer-turned-fireman, even if a midpoint revelation about his character does somewhat deflect such claims on the filmmakers' part.)

The movie, then, isn't a comedy classic, by any means (and it goes too far with Rob Schneider's appearance). But when it comes to accomplishing its admirably compassionate aims---as annoyingly heavy-handed as it sometimes gets (sometimes painfully so), I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry isn't nearly as awful as the reviews have suggested it is. I won't oversell it and hail it as some kind of important mainstream breakthrough---it would probably have been infinitely more ballsy to have our two leads maybe play actual gay characters instead of just pretending, and especially braver to see them actually kiss onscreen (at least the too-timid Brokeback Mountain two years ago was brave enough to show that)---but when it comes to treating homosexuals as simply people and exposing the fallacy of societal attitudes that prize machismo over "gay-ness," now and then the film draws real blood. Particularly valuable for me is the way it pokes fun at machismo run amok, and how that testosterone overload spills over to blind homophobia. For instance, whereas Sandler's objectification of and occasional contempt for women was often played for approving laughs in some of his previous comedies, he slyly turns it around here as Chuck and plays it for disapproving laughs. Chuck is made out to be such a manipulative, womanizing jerk at the beginning of the film that, early on, it starts to feel less like the film itself being misogynistic than simply the filmmakers exaggerating Chuck's (and others') misogyny before setting us up for his eventual transformation (when he discovers Jessica Biel's charming lawyer)---yes, that's Sandler's typical arc for his movies, but somehow it feels a bit more convincing this time around (even if Sandler once again isn't quite credible enough as an actor to take it all the way). This time, we're laughing at him rather than with him---a subtle but crucial difference.

In the end, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry demands, in its own preachy and sloppy way, that we look past mainstream notions of "gay" behavior and simply accept people as people, whether gay, straight or gay-posing-as-straight. Sexual orientation, however real or faked, doesn't change the underlying human being underneath. Sounds banal? I suppose, but it's still a healthy and humane viewpoint, and the evident sincerity of the movie and its occasionally sharp and valuable satirical bits once again sneak past my cynical defenses and touches me, no matter how mediocre it may be as a movie. It's a messy and half-realized but admirable step in the right direction...even more so than Brokeback, I daresay (and yes, Ang Lee's film does make an appearance at one point in this movie).

As for Rescue Dawn---well, for what it's worth, I was deeply involved in much of what I saw, but I'm going to use that second free pass to see it all the way through, even if that means sitting through most of the movie again. So I'll reserve thoughts until then.

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