Will Adam Sandler's New Comedy Help the Gay Medicine Go Down?
July 16, 2007
If you wanted to make a documentary or even a drama about gay discrimination in contemporary society today – and also hoped to have it open on several thousand screens nationwide, including multiplexes throughout the Bible belt – you'd probably get a lot of studio doors slammed in your face. But when your name is Adam Sandler, and you want to explore those ideas in a wacky farce called I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, the gates are flung wide open.
Despite its many flaws (see our upcoming review this Thursday), Chuck and Larry will probably do more for the national debate on gay marriage than every book written by conservative gay writer Andrew Sullivan and every letter you've sent to your senator put together. Red-staters of every stripe who wouldn't watch a Logo documentary on a bet might very well rush out to see this movie, based on the comic appeal of Sandler and co-star Kevin James alone.
But this “bait-and-switch” approach is a tried-and-true one for Hollywood. Like Mary Poppins' spoonful of sugar, a little comedy makes it a whole lot easier for audiences to swallow exposure to concepts that make them otherwise twitchy. There are, in fact, three main methods employed by comedies (and even some dramas) that allow filmmakers to teach audiences a civics lesson about equal rights without being thuddingly didactic about it.
How can they be so mean to that nice [insert name of movie star here]?
In Chuck and Larry, James plays a New York firefighter who – for contrived circumstances the script has to bend over backwards to maintain – asks best friend Sandler to enter into a domestic partnership with him so that James' pension benefits can go to his children and not his dead wife should he die in the line of duty. (Like I said, don't ask.)
Sandler's character has been presented as a cocky ladies' man with a gaggle of Hooter's waitresses running in and out of his bachelor pad, but James saved his life, putting Sandler in his debt, so he goes through with the deception.
When circumstances lead to Sandler and James' public identification as a gay couple, it all starts hitting the fan. Their fellow firefighters are leery about sharing a shower, a fellow dad at James' kids' school tells him he's no longer welcome to help with the Boy Scouts or to coach Little League, and Sandler's buddies don't even want to play pick-up basketball with him anymore because they worry he'll get too handsy.
Because these indignities are happening to a) a beloved movie and TV star who are b) playing guys who aren't even really gay, the audience is allowed to feel indignant on their behalf, more than they would if these horrible things were happening to an actual gay person. But hey, if it takes watching a heterosexual get gay-bashed to make straight audiences identify with the plight of queers everywhere, so be it.
If this methodology seems familiar, it's because you've seen it in lots of movies: Dustin Hoffman gets his derriere pinched while in drag in Tootsie (1982), while C. Thomas Howell gets tossed in the clink for “driving while black” when he impersonates an African-American in Soul Man (1986). The granddaddy of all “innocent” victims of bigotry film would probably be Gregory Peck's portrayal of a Gentile reporter who goes undercover as a Jew in 1947's Gentleman's Agreement.
This approach can be tricky, of course – feminists didn't complain about Hoffman playing a woman, but many people were up in arms over the idea of Howell donning “blackface,” even if it was with the best of intentions. Gay audiences have been similarly leery of Chuck and Larry for its straight-guys-passing-as-queer plot, to say nothing of the fantasyland scenario in which having a same-sex partner becomes more legally beneficial rather than less. Additionally, the film's ridiculous trailer did little to assure viewers that Sandler and James wouldn't just be indulging in one gay-panic joke after another. (The movie's ultimate offenses have more to do with bad writing and directing than with homophobia.)