Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Garbage In, Garbage Out

I remember being fairly disappointed with Frank Oz's In & Out (1997) when I saw it on its initial release. My memory of it is that I thought it wasn't nearly funny enough and that it was entirely too middlebrow. It didn't have the strength of its convictions. Choosing to watch it again for Pride month and the Queer Film Blogathon was an act of laziness on my part, actually. It was on Netflix instant and I didn't have to scroll through a bunch of titles on my Roku to find it. Easy peasy. It turns out that my memory of it was pretty good, to a point. It IS entirely too middlebrow for its own good. It's also a pernicious fantasy and a bundle of unfortunate stereotypes.

The film is based in part on Tom Hanks's Oscar speech for Philadelphia. I remember watching this with friends and thinking, "Omigod! Tom Hanks got possessed!" Philadelphia, it should be noted, is another film that seems to me to be composed of vague stereotypes and middlebrow fantasy, but I don't want to get into that here. In & Out postulates a similar Oscar speech on the part of a clueless film star where one Howard Brackett (Kevin Kline), the poor drama teacher in question, not only ISN'T gay, he's about to get married. Much hilarity ensues as he tries to explain away his predilection for Barbara Streisand and the fact that he and his fiancee of three years still haven't done the nasty. On a more ominous note, the small-town school district is asking him questions about his sexuality with the threat of termination hanging behind them. And worse still is the media circus, led by a gay entertainment reporter who prods Howard towards acknowledging his true self. The movie does a 180 degree switch halfway through when Howard actually comes to his own realization that he's gay.

I think the problem with this is that the notion that Howard actually IS gay and doesn't know it is not, by itself, funny. The notion that he ISN'T gay, but is stereotypical of what gay men are "supposed" to be like is more subversive, but the movie can't tolerate that. So of COURSE Howard's predilection for Streisand and dance and poetry is a sign that he's gay, because, y'know that's what ALL gay men are like, right? Way to enforce cultural stereotypes, guys. Once the movie caves to this point, it unsexes Howard. I mean, he was pretty much unsexed to start with, but once he admits his orientation, it's like he's had his balls cut off. He meekly acquiesces to Bob Newhart's callow school principle when he's fired and offers no defense to anything else that happens to him. Not only that, but the logical relationship that should develop between Howard and reporter Peter Malloy never happens. It's okay to the people of Howard's small American pie town that he's gay so long as, y'know, he's not sucking cock.

Still, it's not all bad. I think Joan Cusack entirely deserved her Oscar nomination as Howard's long-suffering fiancee. Her comic timing is perfect, and she gets big laughs toward the end of the film. Comedy is hard, after all, and she makes it look easy. It doesn't hurt that she's the ONLY character in the movie that has a credible character arc. Much the same could be said about Tom Selleck, cast WAY against type as Peter Malloy. He's fun to watch on screen and seems entirely comfortable in the role. It's hard to believe that Howard, being gay, wouldn't be all over that, but the movie reneges on this particular promise. For that matter, Ken Adam's production designs conjure up small town America as a kind of idyll. You can't look at the town in this movie and mistake it for anywhere real, but it IS appealing. Too appealing, I think, for the way the movie ends.

The payoff at the end is that the town loves Howard regardless, and I watched it this time round with my jaw hanging open. The delusional nature of this particular fantasy ending reminds me of those people who say we're in a post-racial society now that we've elected a black man president. Last year, a real-life small town high school staged a fake prom to avoid having a lesbian attend with her date. The state of Tennessee just passed a law making it illegal for teachers to even utter the word "gay" in front of their students. I testified in front of my own small-town city council about a year ago in favor of a non-discrimination ordinance only to have to sit through the opposition trotting out the same lies and slanders that they always do, comparing gay people to pedophiles, drug addicts, and prostitutes. I can normally suspend my own disbelief for movie fantasies, but it seems to me that the fantasy at the end of In & Out is particularly malign. Everything has been solved and people are generally good and tolerant!" this movie exclaims. "No need to do anything further." This is a normative movie, intended to preserve the status quo.


Erich Kuersten said...

I saw this at a dollar theater in Myrtle Beach, SC on Xmas day while down with my family - and I almost got lynched! I was the only one laughing - the rest of the crowd were clearly deeply angered by all the gay stuff - you could hear muttering and curses. I was wearing a yellow sweater my mom gave me, and three guys gave me the evil stare when I was in the bathroom! No one attacked me, or tore down the theater, but it was close, and it was awesome. (PS I'm straight and hate Barbara Streisand, but do love to dance!)

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Erich.

The audience for In & Out was pretty into the movie when I first saw it. Missouri isn't as gay panicked as the deep south, I guess, but I live in a college town. I don't know how this would have played in, say Springfield or West Plains.

Aubyn said...

Great review and commentary. I never saw this one though I like both Kevin Kline and Joan Cusack. Joan in particular; Hollywood never seemed to know what to do with her.

Now I am curious if you ever saw Frank Oz's remake of The Stepford Wives and the gay couple in that one. I keep trying to watch it, if only for comparison's sake with the original, but I never can force myself to sit down and watch it in its entirety. The gender politics in that one are just excruciating.

Caroline said...

Great review; I'm so happy you're making this blogathon your own and running with it all month. :) I just tried re-watching this movie recently as well for the exact same reasons you did (it was on Netflix and seemed easy to stomach). But I kept falling asleep halfway through and never got to the end, which probably doesn't bode well for my enjoyment of the film anyhow. I think I lost interest at exactly the point when Howard discovers he really IS gay; what a pathetic cop-out. What could've been a witty and intelligent take on the mistake of stereotypes instead just winds up REINFORCING those stereotypes in a boring and predictable way. At that point I decided the film wasn't worth my attention. And now you're telling me he doesn't even end up with Tom Selleck at the end?!? Now I know not to even try to finish this one.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Rachel.

I haven't seen remake of The Stepford Wives. Now I'm curious, though not curious enough to go seeking it out. And, really, the original is good enough for me.

Hi, Caroline.

Re: Tom Selleck. I know, right? Some hot boy kissing with Kline and Selleck would have gone a LONG way toward making this tolerable. But no, alas.