Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene A Gay Deception

By Donna Bowman and Jim Ridley

SEPTEMBER 29, 1997:  Remember a movie called To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar? Its trailer, set to a rocking disco beat, showed three drag queens saving a Midwestern town from ignorance, sexism, and sepia-toned dullness. The few who went to see it got exactly what the trailer and the lavish PR blitz promised. But after a mild ripple in the public consciousness caused by the sight of Wesley Snipes and Patrick Swayze in dresses--John Leguizamo excited no disturbance--Wong Foo faded into video stores.

Two years later, here comes In & Out. Its trailer, set to a rocking disco beat, shows a high school teacher in a Midwestern town who is publicly declared to be gay on the eve of his wedding. All his attempts to assert his heterosexuality end in laughable failure. In & Out too has a massive advertising campaign of full-page ads, saturation television, sneak previews, the works. The difference is that In & Out is guaranteed to be a smash.

Why the difference? Because the trailer promises that In & Out is not a movie about being gay--it's a movie about being thought to be gay when you're actually not. (You should stop reading now if you don't want the movie's surprises spoiled.) The ad campaign makes In & Out look like a satire on the current media hunger for coming-out stories. The trailer emphasizes Kline shouting, "I'm not gay!," and the poster is deliberately careful--a picture of Kline in a rumpled tuxedo holding some flowers. The audience is thus primed to laugh itself hoarse as gay stereotypes are applied willy-nilly where they don't belong. Liberal Hollywood and the press, always pushing homosexuality in our faces, will get a good skewering by the other 90 percent of us.

It comes as something of a shock, then, when In & Out turns out to be much more like the coming-out episode of Ellen than a parody of it. Because of the gap between the movie that was promised to me and the movie I got, I felt uneasy about In & Out even while I was enjoying its well-turned wackiness. Screenwriter Paul Rudnick also wrote Jeffrey, a very funny 1995 farce about a gay man who swears off sex because of AIDS, only to find temptation at every turn. Knowing that Rudnick writes about gay culture from the inside is the only subtle clue whether In & Out is actually going to be in...or out.

Rudnick brings the same gag-laced, broad tone to this movie that Jeffrey had, and director Frank Oz matches it with his own loopy sensibility. Cameron Drake (Matt Dillon) outs his former teacher Howard Brackett (Kevin Kline) in a parody Oscar telecast that includes wacky fake clips; a TV tabloid reporter (Tom Selleck) does a hilarious send-up of Hard Copy reportage as he stakes out Brackett's hometown of Greenleaf, Ind. Fantastical elements, like Brackett's losing battle with a masculinity-enhancement instructional tape, signal unmistakably that this comedy is about as close to reality as a Monty Python sketch. But because Kline is so likable and so in control of his comic instruments, we identify with Brackett in his plight right up to the climactic wedding scene--when, suddenly, we realize we're watching a much different movie from the one that has been advertised.

There are hints before this moment that the comfortable mistaken-identity plot isn't what it seems. An early joke about how gay sex is unnatural--it confuses the in holes with the out holes--reveals the misinformed homophobia of one of Brackett's students. At the same time, though, it causes a restless stirring in the audience, which isn't expecting its own attitudes to be lampooned. Isn't In & Out supposed to be defending straight people? Has the trailer lied to us?

Personality crisis Kevin Kline tries to get the macho thing down in In & Out. Photo by Andy Schwartz.

In a word, yes. This may be a brilliant marketing strategy, aimed at keeping the real subject of the movie a surprise, but it's also blatant pandering to an audience who wouldn't go see a movie about gays. While humor about people defending themselves against the charge of homosexuality is commonplace (think Seinfeld), movies about gay characters appear only at the art house. Sure, The Birdcage hit it big with a mainstream audience, but its flaming heroes appealed to middle America in an exotic, alien fashion--like humanoid visitors from another planet. In & Out feels it has to trick multiplexers into caring about a gay man who doesn't wear makeup and sequins. Its hocus-pocus crumbles after the big revelatory wedding scene, when Brackett stops being a character and becomes a symbol for the redemption of Greenleaf.

Kline has hardly any lines in the last act, and Joan Cusack, playing his beleaguered fiancee, gets all the laughs. The filmmakers seem to understand that once Brackett's sexuality is no longer in doubt, he is no longer funny. But putting it so bluntly means that Mr. and Mrs. America in their aisle seats have nearly half a movie to reflect on the filmmakers' beliefs about them. Rudnick and Oz don't feel certain that the audience will, of its own accord, stand up and cheer for the confused hero, so they have surrogate middle Americans onscreen prompt them in a Spartacus-inspired ending. This is preaching, even if the medicine is sugar-coated with humor.

Combine that with the press campaign, which leads the audience to expect an antidote to the usual liberal one-world-ism, and I wouldn't blame the perceptive viewer for getting a bit testy, no matter what his politics. It's no fun to be told what you want by the ads--only to be reassured, once you've bought your ticket, that what you're getting is really much better for you.

In the final analysis, In & Out has exactly the same plot as To Wong Foo--gay people rescue a small town--just without the dresses and with a lot more laughs. Maybe the marketing folks at Paramount learned from the prior film's dismal box office that they needed to conceal In & Out's real agenda from viewers until moviegoers had paid their money. It can even be argued that since Rudnick and Oz's message is intact, this is no sell-out. But it's still a bait-and-switch.--Donna Bowman

Inhuman resources

In college, I devised a ratio called the Anal Magnitude Theory to explain a fundamental principle of dating: The bigger an asshole a guy seemed to be, the more women he seemed to attract. As time went on, the AMT was invoked to solve many of life's mysteries. It explained why the guy who made my skin crawl was driving a Mercedes. It explained why the biggest jerks I knew always ended up in management positions.

Even at my most paranoid, though, I never thought suave preppie bastards were as all-powerful as Neil LaBute does. LaBute's first film as writer and director, In the Company of Men, is a scathing satire meant to indict macho corporate climbers as sexist, racist monsters. Two junior executives are dispatched to a company outpost in a drab Midwestern burgh for six weeks. The two men's talk turns to the various ways they've been screwed over: by life, by bosses, by women. The more assured of the two, Chad (Aaron Eckhart), proposes a game to get revenge. The first woman they see, they'll woo, seduce, and bedazzle. When she falls in love, he and his buddy Howard (Matt Malloy) will crush her.

LaBute deliberately leaves the characters vague because we're meant to be see Chad and Howard as symbolic--as the rotten apples that represent the poisonous tree. And even though he doesn't name his company town, it's recognizable enough: It resides somewhere between Mametville, U.S.A., and the Pinterlands, where the business world is the unhappy hunting ground of imperiled masculinity, and men speak either in jabbing, hostile riffage or in ominous code. Just in case we miss how cruel Chad and Howard's game really is, they've been handed a doubly heartbreaking victim: a deaf typist, Christine (played beautifully by Stacy Edwards), who's twice as vulnerable--thereby making her tormentors twice as vicious.

The trouble is that once the situation and the characters have been introduced, the movie never deviates a footstep from LaBute's narrow path. The plot against Christine is like one of those impossible cinematic bank heists that works only if every detail happens exactly as planned--and locks and tumblers are a whole lot more reliable than the whims of the heart. For LaBute's setup to work, Chad must be infallible, irresistible, and omniscient, and Christine must be absolutely clueless. I think the director believes he's making a movie sympathetic to women--he clearly hates his antiheroes and likes his victim--but in his dim conception men are invincible manipulators and women are powerless to resist. I'm not saying guys are incapable of hatching something this cold-blooded; I just don't buy that it all works out this smoothly.

Nor do I buy how self-consciously evil LaBute's men are. The director is constantly inflating their believably swinish behavior to unbelievable excess, the better to score points off of them. It's one thing to have Chad mock the speech of an African-American subordinate, a subtle and effectively creepy moment; it's another thing to have Chad order the man a moment later to drop his drawers. That wouldn't even happen at Texaco. LaBute even revives the old feminist gag about the difference between a golf ball and a clitoris--a man'll spend 20 minutes looking for a golf ball--only he puts the punch line in Chad's mouth and changes it to first person. Why would this arrogant stud tell a joke about his sexual ineptitude? To make him look even more boorish--and to score an extra laugh off that boorishness.

Neil LaBute has a lot of talent: It's evident in his spot-on parodies of corporate back-stabbing, in which any person who leaves the room is an instant target. Individual scenes are striking, particularly the one in which Howard does something rather honorable for entirely vindictive reasons; and the acting by the three leads is quite good--especially by Stacy Edwards and by Aaron Eckhart, who's hatefully effective as Chad. LaBute even finesses his minuscule budget with coolly clinical camera setups and long takes.

But at the end, after the director sprang his one nasty surprise, I felt as if I'd spent 90 minutes watching the Reefer Madness of institutionalized machismo. By that time, LaBute's resentment of Chad is so hysterical that it starts to look like envy--something our last view of Chad only drives home. The Anal Magnitude Theory may work as a salve for life's inequities, but In the Company of Men proves it's a pretty wobbly basis for art.--Jim Ridley

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