Gay director John Waters once brilliantly summed up what’s wrong with most Hollywood movies – he’d slip into a mopey Eeyore voice and note, “They learned.” Most mainstream narratives provide their protagonists with a series of little mini-epiphanies, the kind we rarely get in real life, so the characters (and, by extension, the audience) can learn something.
And boy, do people learn things in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, the dopey Adam Sandler-Kevin James comedy (complete with GLAAD seal of approval) about straight guys whose minds are opened when they have to masquerade as a gay couple.
Gay film industry observers have had twinges of concern over this project for years – at one point it was announced as a vehicle for Will Smith and Nicolas Cage – and those twinges turned into full-on anxiety once audiences got a look at the trailer, which features Sandler smacking James in the face during their wedding so as to get out of kissing him.
While it’s very easy to eviscerate Chuck and Larry from an activist point of view – the pre-enlightened Sandler makes jokes about “Olympic Baton Swallowing,” while Dan Aykroyd tells the leads, “What you shove up your ass is your own business” – all one really has to do to slam the flick is look at the lazy, contrived writing and the traffic-cop direction by frequent Sandler accomplice Dennis Dugan (Big Daddy, Happy Gilmore).
Oh, here’s a Dennis Dugan fun fact – back when he was a full-time actor (he makes a cameo here as a homophobic Niagara Falls cabbie whom Sandler and James pummel), he played an embarrassingly mincing, “Fabulous!”–spouting poof in a ludicrous comedy called Norman, Is That You? That 1976 film starred Redd Foxx as a man who tries to “cure” his gay son; the ensuing 30 years seems to have done little for Dugan’s taste in queer comedy.
Plot-wise, Chuck and Larry emulates another squirmy old homophobic comedy, 1969’s The Gay Deceivers. That earlier film was about two straight guys who pretended to be a gay couple to dodge the draft; after moving in together, they face scorn and ridicule from friends and family. If only Chuck and Larry were that realistic – in this movie’s universe, homosexuality actually does proffer “special rights,” in that firefighter Larry (James) can only transfer his pension benefits from his late wife to his children by getting a domestic partnership with best friend and fellow fireman Chuck (Sandler). (Already the plot police are turning on their sirens – for starters, wouldn’t the wife have had a will leaving everything to the kids if she and Larry were both dead?)
Anyway, skirt-chasing Chuck is reluctant at first – “Domestic partnership? You mean like faggots?” – but eventually acquiesces because Larry saved his life, leaving Chuck in his debt. At first they just fill out the paperwork and go along as usual, but when a creepy bureaucrat (Steve Buscemi, blowing all his gay karma from Parting Glances) starts investigating them for possible fraud, Chuck has to move in with Larry and begin faking domestic life together. Putting together an evidence trail on the advice of their lawyer (Jessica Biel), the men travel to Canada to get married, which leads us to a tacky wedding chapel owned by a Japanese man, played by Rob Schneider.
Yes, that’s right – in a movie that’s already flirting with homophobic slurs (which we’re supposed to forgive because everyone learns by the end) and ridiculous gay characters (there’s not one non-flitter in the bunch), the filmmakers throw in yellowface for good measure. The queer stuff in Chuck and Larry isn’t awful enough to merit protests, but Asian actors would have every right to picket this movie for working stereotypes that were cringe-worthy when Mickey Rooney shouted, “Miss Gorightry! I must plotest!” in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961).
So what else happens? (Plot spoilers, as such, ahead.) There’s a running gag about how everyone assumes Chuck is the “woman” in the relationship, but the joke is Chuck’s peevishness about this and not about the fact that actual gay relationships, for the most part, don’t have a “man” and a “woman” in them, and that only the least enlightened straight people still think they do.
Another recurring joke revolves around Larry’s son, who wears Flashdance sweats, does the splits, uses his sister’s E-Z-Bake Oven, and loves musical theater. While the script is generally sympathetic to the kid, the obviousness with which he’s presented elevates the writers of Ugly Betty to Molière-like heights by comparison.
Oh, and let’s not forget Ving Rhames, who plays a new addition to the firehouse. At first, he’s silent and scary, with a “187” tattoo and a reputation as an unhinged loose cannon. But after word gets out about Chuck and Larry’s “relationship,” Rhames’s character finds the courage to come out. The second that happens, Rhames suddenly goes from scary tough guy to channeling the drag queen he played in Lifetime movie Holiday Heart, complete with a naked rendition of “I’m Every Woman” in the communal shower room. (Give me strength.)
If there’s anything that I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry can’t be faulted on, it’s good intentions. Sandler has presented positive gay characters in the past, and I’m sure he thinks that audiences will follow Chuck’s arc from homophobe to Friend of Gays Everywhere. In doing so, however, the script (which somehow featured a rewrite by the very talented Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, although you’d never know it) makes all the discrimination so obvious and in-your-face that it’s like the cast of Crash chasing Little Eliza across the ice. (A fellow dad at Larry’s kids’ school tells Larry he’s no longer needed as a Little League coach or Boy Scout troop leader; Chuck’s fellow firemen won’t play basketball with him anymore because they think he’ll try to cop a feel. Mind you, this movie is set in New York City.)
It all culminates with a speech about respect and understanding from Aykroyd, of all people (but only after he gets to call Rudy Giuliani a “great mayor”), but the motives of the speech, and of the movie itself, are undercut by a climactic moment in which Chuck and Larry are supposed to kiss but (spoiler alert!) they don’t. So Sandler can talk the “hey, kids, let’s stop using the word ‘faggot’” talk all he wants, but if he can’t handle that tiny amount of walking the walk, then forget it.
With smarter writing and directing, Chuck and Larry could have gone further out on a limb with its ideas and gotten its points across, while being interesting and provocative. Kevin Smith hardly played it safe with his landmark Chasing Amy (1997) – another movie about a straight guy learning a thing or two about queer life – and while he offended some viewers with his lesbian-falls-for-breeder storyline, he made a movie that says something and is clever and entertaining. Chuck and Larry gets its message across, but it’s ultimately forgettable crap.
Subtlety and intelligence are rarely the hallmark of Hollywood movies, so it’s certainly likely that I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry will both make money and maybe even win a few straight hearts and minds along the way. Bully for it if it does. But movies that are this stupid about gay life, made by straight people, exist as object lessons of why it’s so very important that queer artists tell our own stories from our own point of view. Because if we leave it to the heterosexuals, obviously, they’re going to get it all wrong. Even if they, and some straight viewers, learn along the way.
Alonso Duralde is the author of 101 Must-See Movies for Gay Men. Find him at www.alonsoduralde.com.