Guardian film critics Matt Sussman and Jason Shamai have a few things they wanna say about the new film I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. Let's listen in!
Matt Sussman’s review, as published in the Guardian: Despite passing marks from FireFLAG/EMS of the Fire Department of New York, "the nation’s oldest and largest LGBT firefighter organization," and GLAAD assuring us that I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry is not merely an excuse to trot out tired gay stereotypes and that beneath the disarming and broad humor is a strong message of tolerance, this sophomoric comedy starring Adam Sandler and Kevin James as straight firemen who pretend to be gay to gain domestic-partner benefits isn’t so much homophobic as baldly misogynistic and thoroughly unentertaining. Sure, dismissing a Sandler comedy as sophomoric is stating the obvious, but in films such as Punch-Drunk Love, he has proved that he can set aside the flatulence and fat jokes, sit at the adult comedians’ table, and still make us laugh. So let’s add regressive (along with racist, thanks to an extrapainful Rob Schneider) to our list of modifiers. While one could argue that the film sends up regular straight dudes as much as it milks laughs from the standard chain of gay signifiers, this failed reverse La Cage aux Folles doesn’t realize the extent to which it exposes the rickety scaffolding that precariously separates straight buddy love from flaming faggotry. Or maybe that’s the anxiety the film is really trying to allay by declaiming any homophobic culpability. Whatever — I’ve already spent too much brain power thinking over a frat house skit-night sketch that somehow became a film. Someone get me a cock.
Jason Shamai responds, after the jump.
JS: Well, I hope you've got a little brain power left to waste on our scheduled Chuck and Larry chat, which, admittedly, seems a little silly now that I've seen the thing and agree that it doesn't exactly cry out for analysis. Then again, there are a lot of people who will leave the theater thinking they've learned something from this "message movie," so it's probably worth our time to hash out why this is so, so untrue.
The GLAAD seal of approval alone begs for a response. I think you and I must have seen a different movie than they did. The fucker may not be merely an excuse to trot out the gay stereotypes, but it sure does offer them up as a bonus, doesn't it? You're absolutely right to concentrate your ire on the misogyny and racism (apparently no ground has been gained, or maybe retained, since Mickey Rooney's Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's), but the pathetic representations of gay men might be nearly as disconcerting for a different reason. They strike me as cousins to the tired stereotypes trotted out by the filmmakers catering to us queers, in a industry niche so fertile it's already justified its very own Wayans Bros.-style lampoon, Another Gay Movie. With that in mind, it doesn't really shock me that GLAAD would sign off on Chuck and Larry, assuming they weren't taking notes on behalf of any other represented group of people. Fuck solidarity, right?
Disturbingly, it really looks like the hateful depictions of women (as a rule, they cheerfully take whatever shit men give them and return the favor with hot sex), the obese, and the Japanese serve more purpose here than just as the raw materials of comedic triumph. Their presence really seems intended to counterbalance whatever social good the filmmakers thought they were achieving by even addressing the faggot question, an olive branch to the lowest rungs of their target audience. The moooodddddest nudge toward mainstream acceptance benevolently gifted the world by the snoozy, incrementalist Brokeback Mountain is exchanged here for an assumption that the stupid masses can only digest a collective mea culpa to one aggrieved population if everyone else is shat upon in the process.
It seems to me one of the communities bearing the worst of that assumption, though you wouldn't exactly call them an aggrieved population, is straight males, who are painted almost without exception as vile, idiotic booby-warmers. I'm not saying these guys don't exist -- you'll remember the shining example sitting in the row ahead of us in the theater -- but their profusion here is calculated. Adam Sandler movies rarely insist on their men acting quite so disgustingly. If I were a straight man watching this film, I'd be more than a little pissed to be implicitly associated with the self-flagellation-turned-misogynist orgy -- a transformation more troublingly swift and seamless than that of a CGI Decepticon—that passes for a skewering of machismo. But at least women are granted this bullshit attempt at justice; maybe they'll do right by Asians and fat people in the next movie. In the meantime, gays and straights can bond over how funny they are.
Two of the gentlemen we have to thank for this milestone in queer history are Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, the writing team behind the Payne-directed Election, About Schmidt, and Sideways. They were given the same easy money script-revising task on Jurassic Park III, though I suspect they were brought on board for this one -- a decade after the original script was written -- because they have a knack for taking politically iffy material and making it seem classy (Election's even handling of teacher-student sex, About Schmidt's "Dear Ndugu" letters, etc). Though I guess whoever hired them was interested in the reputation alone, maybe to impress the same folks who were comforted by the GLAAD endorsement. They can't have done a whole lot of revising, unless they've suddenly become taken with swollen-prostate humor. But there are some out-of-left-field funny moments that ring much truer than everything else. It'd be a fun game to try to pick out which material is theirs -- I don't think it'd be too hard. (There's at least one gimme, straight out of About Schmidt, where Kevin James fondles his dead wife's clothing.) I'm guessing a bit about one of those voice-recognition answering machines was theirs. Maybe the designation "paper faggots" was theirs, too. And probably the creepy-funny impressions of the same dead wife. A little archipelago of passable comedy in a sea of excrement. I'm all for the Jurassic Park III kinds of payouts (man, would I be all over that shit), but I have to say they lost some of my respect working on this one.
By the way, what's the deal with Nathan Lee over at the Village Voice? "An ingenious dismantling of homophobia"?!? It takes courage to make a statement like that about a movie like this, but that doesn't make it any less delusional.
What do you think, Matt? And please pass the cock.
MS: Well, Jason, you certainly fleshed out much of the disgust burbling beneath my blurb. I read Nathan Lee's review, and while I wouldn't go so far as to say, "Chuck and Larry is the first movie to effectively hijack that all-purpose justification for right-wing bigotry, 'protecting the children,' and redeploy it as a weapon of the homosexual intifada," I do want to give the film some credit (should I be thanking Payne and Taylor here?) for portraying normative "straight" masculinity as something fragile which threatens to buckle under the perceived threat of homosexuality. Whether this was intentional or not is hard to tell. The film seems to want it both ways: to traffic in cheap homophobic jokes while declaiming them by sending up of male heterosexual boorishness. I don't know if it ever really earns such a hall pass.
Think about the opening scene of the firehouse crew playing basketball -- all medium shots of men groping, grunting, colliding and sweating. Later, once word gets out about Sandler's character being gay, no one will shoot hoops with him for fear of being groped, something for which he later takes them to task. Whereas Sandler gains our sympathy in this case, the film still operates on a logic that contains any genuine threat to its straight male protagonists by marking it "homosexual" for comedic effect. For example, the unstated sexual threat posed by the mysterious and hyper-virile black male transfer Duncan (Ving Rhames), is defused by having him come out as a flaming, Whitney Houston-loving gay man.
I am reminded of the Barbara Kruger print which features the text: "You construct intricate rituals which allow you to touch the skin of other men." I think the film can be viewed as an apt illustration of this proposition (and the homoerotic tensions that underpin it), in both its self-conscious moments and symptomatic lapses. But I wouldn't say that's its saving grace.
It's funny. I didn't even think of About Schmidt when Kevin James was fondling his deceased wife's clothing. I immediately thought of Mrs. Danvers fondling her former mistress's undergarments in Rebecca, silly queer that I am.
JS: Kruger’s print knows what it’s talking about -- it would have made a good poster for the movie. There are tricky moments galore where it’s hard to suss out who’s trying to tell you what, as in the bedroom dynamics that could be seen as anything from sweet to sticky sweet. Then again, the turgidity of Sandler’s insistence on sharing James’s bed is, I think, very calculatedly deflated by the housekeeper’s jumping in the sack with them. (And, anyway, I think the point of the bedroom logistics was not to stir the loins of queer theory but to allow the plot get to where it has to go. It’s one of the things that helps them “prove” they’re gay at the you’re-not-really-gay hearing.) It’s amazing how every single point in this movie has its counterpoint, to disarm any and all spasms of homophobia or homo-tolerance. I bet a scene-by-scene inventory would reveal a perfectly symmetrical piece of filmmaking.
Totally, Matt, the Ving Rhames example is one more of Chuck and Larry’s attempts to neutralize itself, which didn’t fool anybody but the had-to-be-high Nathan Lee. (At least his review, unlike the movie, can buttress its cockeyed politics with a solid string of one-liners.) There is not one homo in the entire movie for Sandler and James to relate to on a nonpolitical level. They’re all safely beyond the guys’ frame of reference, so the pair can learn their lesson without having to jump in the shower afterwards. Remedying this wouldn’t make the movie any better (I can just see the savvy installment of a gay man’s man whom they can’t help but love), but at least then it wouldn’t be quite the absurd collage of guiding principles.
And, I’m sorry, but as far as I’m concerned the parochial junior high dance that is gay-straight relations in this movie undermines beyond recognition any of that highly qualified credit you’re willing to give it. Besides, if Payne and Taylor (for the sake of simplicity, and in deference to reasonable deduction, I’m gonna go ahead and attribute to them anything that isn’t half-witted) really did intend to portray the fragility of normative masculinity and the perceived threat of homosexuality, I can’t say I’m impressed with their insight. Nobody isn’t aware of this perceived threat. It’s even built into the word homophobia, a supposed umbrella term for queer-directed hostility I’ve always found a bit presumptuous. Anyway I think the movie is a specimen of that fragility and threat, not a comment on them. Though I am almost tempted -- almost -- to watch the movie again to scan for any moments where they play the shit-smeared American comedy like a Stradivarius, I’m guessing I wouldn’t find much beyond the damage-control cleverness we both remember. I definitely think it’s earned no hall pass. How weird that Lee is such an easily conned hall monitor.
His review goes on to specify why he thinks the movie’s so freaking subversive, praising what he believes are shrewdly mobilized stereotypes. He cites one of the movie’s cleverest lines, a virtual non sequitur from Sandler’s character, intended to prove to his lawyer how gay he is, regarding the erotic rewards of high school wrestling. But Lee doesn’t make a distinction between the stereotypes in the guys’ heads (a perfect and occasionally well-mined opportunity for humor) and the ones flitting about the screen. For just one example in the very distended latter category, there’s the brother of Chuck and Larry’s lawyer, who doesn’t seem to be gay so much as have Tourette’s syndrome. He asks the two “big-time fruits” -- men he’s just met -- which one tops and which one bottoms, and in a way that couldn’t be more culturally tone deaf. No one would ask this in the presented context and even the inappropriateness of the question isn’t funny. Compare this to one of my favorite straight-perspective gay jokes on film, which comes from another SNL-alum project, the Norm MacDonald vehicle Dirty Work. (I loved this movie, though I should really see it again before I go calling it criminally underrated.) There is a cut to MacDonald’s character, having just spent a handful of hours in jail, pricelessly responding to men off-screen who have clearly sodomized him: he castigates like a disappointed parent, “You fellas have a lot of growing up to do, I'll tell you that. Ridiculous! Completely ridiculous!”
So it’s a prison sex gay joke to boot, a subcategory of comedy I would never have thought anyone could reinvigorate (or even invigorate) by the late nineties. This joke I hold so dear helps put into perspective the gay humor of Chuck and Larry (and that of better peers like Talladega Nights, an otherwise hilarious movie that went thud with every French fag joke) and pinpoints what’s so offensive, not subversive, about it: the stereotype-dependent jokes are so bland and toothless it’s like they’re not even trying. To them, homosexuality itself is the punch line.
I just realized I’ve been referring to “Sandler’s character” or “James’s character” because I couldn’t think of their names though they’re right in the title. This probably has more to do with my own personal deficiencies, but I’m gonna use it to pinch off the tirade by emphasizing how insignificant a cultural phenomenon we’ve got ourselves here. I certainly don’t begrudge Lee the hope that, to paraphrase him and Abraham Lincoln, Chuck and Larry is the little movie that really furthers the intifada. Hell, if peace, love, and understanding come in the form of a half-eaten chicken wing I’d be the first in line to shake its hand. But if this movie does inspire seismic shifts in popular opinion, let the historians judge it a success. The movie critics should still dismiss it for the piece of shit that it is.
Wow, this was really fun. We should do it again, though maybe with a target not as wide as Sandler’s shit-eating grin. Okay, that was mean. He’s given us a lot better of himself in the past than many people would admit to.
But seriously, we should probably disagree next time.