Sunday, May 24, 2009


Hollywood movies since the 1930s have treated gays as lepers. In condemning homosexuality, the film industry has reflected only what the repressive society of its day espoused as an ideology. For example, in the 1962 Otto Preminger melodrama “Advise and Consent,” straight actor Don Murray was cast as a queer congressman who commits suicide rather than confess his alternative lifestyle. Gay movie characters have covered a lot of ground since “Advise and Consent.” In the 1997 movie “In & Out,” (**1/2 out of ****), heterosexual actor Kevin Kline is cast as a homosexual teacher who comes out of the closet on his wedding day. While the conservative Hollywood of yesteryear stipulated that the congressional queer in “Advise and Consent” had to commit suicide, the liberal Hollywood of today dictates that the gay English teacher should be embraced rather than maced.

Basically, “In & Out” preaches good citizenship in the garb of a politically correct comedy. Director Frank Oz and scenarist Scott Rudnick endorse honesty as the best policy because honesty always ensures happiness. High school teacher Howard Brackett (Kevin Kline of “The Big Chill”) will be happy only after he comes out of the closet, just as his once-fat-but-now-thin fiancée Emily (Joan Cusack) will only feel happy when she can ditch her diet. Ultimately, the movie contends that straight society will accept gays when homosexuals can act with greater honesty and candor about themselves. The happily outed gay tabloid reporter played by straight actor Tom Selleck here effectively dramatizes this open-minded commentary.

Rudnick’s lightweight script embellishes the true life incident that occurred at the Oscars when Tom Hanks paid tribute to a high school teacher. In “In & Out,” Cameron Drake (Matt Dillon), a blond, Brad Pitt style bimbo type actor, wins the Oscar for impersonating a fruity foot soldier. Drake honors his mentor Howard Brackett during his acceptance speech. Not contend to stop there, the candid Cameron reveals to a live, television audience that Howard is gay!

Suspicion, paranoia, and horror set in as the media descend upon the sleepy town of Green Leaf, Indiana. (When would a no-name high school English teacher’s sexual deviance spark such massive media concern?) Among those reporters lurks Peter Malloy (Tom Selleck of “High Road to China”), and he wants to do a week-long exclusive one on Howard. Howard, however, wants nothing to do with the witch-hunting media, especially the pesky Peter Malloy. Howard denies Drake’s gay charges to everybody, including his fiancée and his mom. Malloy lingers because he smells a scoop. The revelation has turned Green Leaf upside down. High school principal Tom Halliwell (Bob Newhart) squirms nervously with all the media coverage. Halliwell warns Howard that were his marriage not imminent, he’d have to give him a pink slip. Meanwhile, Peter bets Howard that his marriage to Emily will fall through at the last moment and he’ll be there to record the result on camera.

Howard resorts to audio tapes about macho men. He struggles to reform himself. But Howard’s efforts are futile. Guilt swells up inside him. And then there is Peter Malloy, who rags him to come clean about his homosexuality. Finally, at the altar in the sight of God, Howard confesses. Of course, bride-to-be Emily Montgomery is floored by Howard’s gay confession. Predictably, the school fires Howard, but he shows up for graduation. Drake shows up, too, and rushes to Brackett’s defense. Not only has the school stripped Howard of his job, but they’ve also given his teacher-of-the-year award to somebody else. Drake appeals to the principal and wins Howard the unanimous support of the community.

The biggest defect in Rudnick’s contrived script is Howard himself. Rudnick has created a character too chaste to be true, either by gray or straight standards. Howard Brackett looms as more of a saint than a sinner. He helps one student gain admission to college, and he coaches the track team. How often do you hear of an English teacher doubling as a coach, too? Everybody at his high school adores Howard. He doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. Further, Rudnick and Oz ask us to believe that nobody else in Green Leaf is gay. Where are Howard’s gay friends? Are they too scared to come to his defense?

No, “In & Out” is not targeted strictly at homosexual audiences. Oz, whose screen credits include cute comedies like “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “House Sitter,” as well as Rudnick teeter on a politically correct tightrope. “In & Out” is not a gay recruiting movie. The filmmakers show no interest in what prompted either Howard or Peter Malloy to prefer the gay lifestyle. Instead, Oz and Rudnick are only interested in shoring up a thin premise: Is he or isn’t he gay? They flesh it out to involve the community response to the answer. Finally, when Howard admits that he is gay, the filmmakers devote the rest of the movies to showing how a conservative, Norman Rockwell-like town can accept him despite his difference.

Along the way, director Oz and writer Rudnick have a high time poking fun at rather than bashing gay stereotypes. If ever a Hollywood mainstream feature were sympathetic toward gay America, “In & Out” is it. Although some prudish characters complain that gay is abnormal, they quickly celebrate Brackett’s virtues: his sartorial elegance, his witty manner, and his sophistication. Before his students realize that Howard is gay, they advise him about how carry he should carry his hands or comport his posture. The scene with the macho man tapes is pretty funny, too, especially the teapot stance reprimand. Oz and Rudnick carefully shun any AIDS or promiscuous sexual behavior.

The sincere message of “In & Out” about tolerance toward those whose sexual orientation may not conform to the norms of society is praiseworthy. Kindly messages, however, don’t make good movies. Sure, the well-timed gags entertain, but the film amounts to more of a sermon than a satire. The final scene at graduation when everybody stands up for Howard is way over the top. Pure fantasy!

As Howard Brackett, Kline delivers a nimble and fastidious comic performance. Clearly, he strives to offend neither straight nor gay moviegoers. Aside from a brief scene with Peter Malloy, Kline’s gay Brackett character makes homosexuals appear as humane, lovable, and compassionate as heterosexuals. The best thing about Kline’s performance is its quiet, unobtrusive quality. Howard Brackett is so obviously gay that you’d have to be blind to miss it. He pedals a bike to school each day, sports a neat bow-tie, and dresses immaculately. Prissy gestures and effeminate postures underlie his every move, and he is a paragon of cleanliness. He has even contaminated the community with his Barbara Streisand mania. “In & Out” is not the kind of movie where a last reel revelation exonerates the protagonist.

Selleck’s role as the trashy gay TV reporter represents a definite stretch from his “Magnum, P.I.” persona. With his thick, he-man mustache shaved off, Selleck doesn’t look anything like he usually looks. Matt Dillon is particularly amusing in his film clips at the Oscars in a gay movie combination of “Platoon” and “Born on the Fourth of July.” Debbie Reynolds’ mother figure who demands that her son wed triggers laughter galore, too. Cusack has a great scene at a roadside diner. She wheels up in a “just married” car wearing her bride’s gown and throws herself at anybody who will have her.

The most shocking scenes in “In & Out” is probably when tabloid reporter Malloy does a lip lock on Howard. Straight guys kissing each other in a movie about a gay identity crisis are as hilarious as they are phony. Kline and Selleck grind their faces together in what appears as more of a head-on collision than a closed-mouth kiss. Nothing at all like the controversial 1994 British movie “Priest,” “In & Out” emerges as an engaging but labored piece of social propaganda with its okay-to-be-act message. If “Ellen” weren’t the TV equivalent, “In & Out” would probably be heading toward TV as a new sitcom. Watching “In & Out” is not so much about dealing with the issue of gay or straight, but how to be a decent person in the last days of the 20th century. What makes “In & Out” a tolerable comedy about sexual intolerance is its equal opportunity cheers and jeers about queers and steers.