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Evenings Out
August 3, 2007

Yep, it’s as bad as we feared

‘Chuck and Larry’ lives down to its TV commercials

Let’s face it: More often than not, Hollywood has had no clue when it makes films about anyone living on the margins of the culture. In the past, movies about outsiders wouldn’t even get green-lighted by a studio, let alone get made.

Women, non-Caucasians, the handicapped and LGBT characters have either been short-shifted with one-dimensional, stereotyped depictions or been ignored altogether. One only need look at the days of blackface, then later when black actors actually got the roles, they played denigrating stereotypes of white folks’ ideas of who they were. Who can forget the early Hollywood renditions of Asians where white actors were painted a pallid yellow, had their eyebrows tweezed thin, eye-slits taped narrow and adorned with Fu Manchu mustaches.

Until today, many female characters have had to fit the three dominant categories of the madonna-mother-whore triptych as deigned by the Hollywood movers and shakers--mostly elite, heterosexual white men.

The historical treatment of LGBT characters isn’t surprising. Most often they are faithful sidekicks, often of few stereotyped professions: hairdressers, interior designers, florists. Even in a pathbreaking film like 1993’s Philadelphia, the leading gay characters were completely desexualized, neutered for Hollywood’s consumption.

So you would think that in 2007 when a film like I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry opens, all the stereotypes of women, gays and Asians would have come a long way. Think again.

I felt my blood pressure rise uncontrollably during the first 15 minutes of the film, where some ridiculously preposterous things are fed to the audience. It doesn’t stop there, but the film does manage to redeem itself at times, creating one of the most bizarre film-going experiences for thinking audiences in recent memory.

Yes, it’s just a comedy from the Adam Sandler school--farts, burps, and toilet humor from an adult who never got past teendom. But it needs to be understood for the culture that birthed it and the society that consumes it.

The premise of Chuck and Larry is interesting, one that hasn’t been tackled much in cinema, let alone mainstream films. The issue of domestic partner benefits for LGBT citizens has long been a hot button issue, rising even more in temperature as the next presidential election approaches.

Larry Valentine (Kevin James) and Chuck Levine (Adam Sandler) are firemen in Brooklyn who go about their usual day, putting out fires, playing the local heroes (particularly after 9-11) and making women swoon, all the while sharing macho moments with their fellow firefighters. There are ass jokes, homoerotic tension, and Sandler’s metrosexual moments, all before the gay plot has even entered the picture.

Larry’s wife has recently died and there is some technical snafu in his life insurance. His children will lose out if he doesn’t do something. After wracking his brain for a nanosecond or two, he asks Chuck to enter into a faux domestic partnership so that the benefits situation can be resolved.

At first Chuck refuses. He’s a playboy after all, Mr. July on the Fireman’s Calendar and so on. There’s not a chance in hell he’ll play gay even for his best buddy, who incidentally just saved his life in a devastating fire.

But he decides to help out, and when a suspicious bureaucrat checks into the legitimacy of their relationship, all hell breaks loose and their partnership of convenience becomes a cause célèbre. Plus, their lawyer Alex (Jessica Biel) is a “hot babe” who falls for Sandler in the cliché that all the good men are taken or gay.

The film has so many head-spinning moments that one could get vertigo just sitting on the floor. It unabashedly engages in fag jokes, especially as the two heroes realize that they will have to act gay, whatever that means.

The fag jokes are never truly cruel, they’re just stale as David Hasselhoff’s breath after a drinking binge. They also make us realize that while Don Imus lost his job for an awful attempt at black jokes, similar gay humor continues to thrive and make people into millionaires.

Yet, in the second half of the film, as the two realize how pernicious homophobia can be, Sandler’s character in particular comes to defend the LGBT community against slurs and gay bashing. When he begins to say things like “Fag is a bad word. The correct vernacular is gay,” or “Saying fag is like calling me kike,” all of a sudden we are in an after-school television special, with dialogue that is banal at best and not worthy of any film, let alone a big-budget one.

At the end, when the two are dragged in front of City Council to prove they are truly gay (the only inspired casting is openly gay actor Richard Chamberlain as a council member), the film becomes even more bizarre. They are asked to kiss in front of all present to prove they are gay. If only that was all it took to get equality under the law in this country.

Here the film’s core falls apart, because even though the ultimate message is clear--that gay people shouldn’t be treated unequally--when Chuck and Larry’s kiss remains unrequited--due to some silly plot turns--we understand that gay people are okay and tolerated as long as their intimacy remains closeted. ]

Had Sandler and James truly kissed, passionately and unabashedly, even enjoying it a bit, the film could have done something revolutionary. But deep down the film is shit scared. It wants to appear daring but because it is made from such a hetero point of view, it just doesn’t get it.

Here’s the good news. As far as stereotypes and old-fashioned ideas of Hollywood go, the gays get the better deal compared to the women and Asians. The women are all simply sex objects, even the high-powered civil rights attorney Alex. When she’s not lawyering or being a bimbo--not necessarily in that order--she goes shopping and makes friendship bracelets with her new best gay friend Chuck. This is such an insulting depiction of women in power that women’s rights groups should be up in arms more than gay ones.

And the Asian groups in America should simply declare war on Hollywood based on the film’s creation of Rob Schneider, who dons yellow-face (pallid skin, a sleek straight-haired mop-top wig and minute slits for eyes) to play a Japanese man who marries the two in Canada. This image is so offensive, but amazingly not a peep has been made about it. Perhaps we are too inured by now at Hollywood’s inanity or Asian groups are too scared to stand up for their rights in these xenophobic times where “you’re either with us or against us.”

More importantly, if gay groups are offended by their images in this film, they should also be equally outraged at the images of women and Asians here.

Chuck and Larry had a great chance to make a difference, to take on a subject that affect the zeitgeist of a nation that still struggles with the second-class citizenship of its LGBT population. One can see, somewhere under all the bad dialogue, stupid plots and inane characters, that the film had its heart in the right place. But it all gets lost somehow in what is simply piss-ass poor filmmaking, to use a phrase Sandler’s fans will get.

Here’s the catch-22 of movies like this. In order for it to get any message to the audience one needs viewers who have media literacy. But if we truly had a democracy in which media literacy was common, we wouldn’t need films like this to tell us what should be common sense. The proof is in the box-office pudding: Chuck and Larry was number one at the box office the same week that Hairspray opened, a film that truly is a rallying cry for those who are different. A media-literate culture would not only know how to digest Chuck and Larry properly, it would also know that there are better offerings out there.


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