Friday, July 9, 2010

Get a Life (Hornbill Film Group, 2006)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The “feature” Charles and I watched Wednesday night was a cheap but surprisingly good movie called Get a Life, made in 2006 by a Chicago company called Hornbill Film Group ( that specializes in making stories about Gays. The writer, director, editor and songwriter is Toby Ross, and for the first 20 minutes or so the story seems a cheaply produced (all too obviously shot on video rather than film) and pretty familiar tale about young (and some not-so-young) Gay men cruising each other in the bars, adult bookstores and back rooms of Chicago, but a dramatic design eventually emerges and the film turns unexpectedly good and genuinely clever and entertaining for the last 50 minutes or so of its 71-minute running time.

The movie is introduced by a voice-over narration by a character named Monty (Michael Gonring), a young twink with nice black hair and a “thing” for picking up older men and getting turned on by their sheer desperation. Monty mentions having left college and his “significant other” in Boston — it’s only later that we find out the “significant other” is a woman, Jamie (whom we never see), and his purpose in spending the summer in Chicago is to get far enough away from his home base that he can get the Gay stuff out of his system before returning, marrying his girlfriend, finishing school and living the rest of his life as a nice little hetero. It actually turns out that the central character is a man, coincidentally also named Jamie (Brian Campbell), who works as a bookkeeper in an auto garage and hangs out at some of the same scenes Monty does but is also pretty strongly drawn as a man who doesn’t really like the casual sex scene and would much prefer the love of another man and an ongoing relationship. Indeed, early on Jamie actually asks Monty out on a dinner date and Monty makes it clear that he’s much more into casual sex and the back room at the bookstore where the central characters do most of their cruising.

Jamie is taken in by Hal (Peter Marinelli), a rather stout blond man who’s older than Jamie but not yet ready for past-his-prime “troll” status, and together the two hatch some preposterous schemes to get themselves laid — including donning drag and cruising straight bars as women (the gimmick is that their drag is so ridiculously obvious no straight guy in the world would be taken in by them) — and they get as far as Jamie being groped by a gas-station attendant (played by Aaron Michael Stahlecker, who also worked as a grip on the production) and complaining to Hal afterwards, “I have never so much in my life wanted real breasts as I do now!” (Earlier Jamie tries to talk Hal out of masquerading in drag to pick up straight guys by pointing out, “Have you ever heard of a vagina? It’s an opening women have between their legs that straight guys like to stick their dicks into!” “So?” Hal says. “So we don’t have one!” Jamie says — to which Hal responds by pointing to his mouth and saying, “So what’s wrong with that as an opening?” Jamie says, “No, I mean the one with hair around it,” to which Hal responds by saying he can always grow a moustache and beard.)

The film seems for its first 20 minutes or so to be going after cheap laughs by hitting the most blatant and clichéd stereotypes of Gay life — including the old troll called “Quasimoda” (Martin Aistorpe), who’s actually not bad looking for his age (he’s made up to be uglier than he probably is for real and he walks hunched over, hence his nickname) but who’s so far beyond the pale age-wise in the bookstore back room that he confesses his only sexual release comes from jacking off while reliving the memories of past tricks; Dr. Head (James Hoelzel), Jamie’s psychotherapist, who gets a hard-on of his own while Jamie is telling him about his exploits in Gayland (oddly the blurb on the DVD box makes this character seem far more important than he is in the film itself); and Galena Chanel (Valentina Stefano), who offers him/herself as an etiquette instructor for would-be drag queens and seems to be patterning both her own identity and her teachings on those of the Hermione Gingold character in Gigi.

The film turns around and gets a lot better once the bookstore gets raided by a lascivious cop (Jim Hicks) and Ross gives us a fantasy sequence in black-and-white called I Was a Teenage Prison Slut!, in which Jamie dreams of himself and Hal seducing the cop that busted them — and from then on the film takes on real emotion and the jokes get a good deal funnier and not quite so predictable. Ross’s strategy as a screenwriter is to set up Jamie as a character who just wants to be a one-man man, find himself a nice boy and settle down — he even gets a monologue about wanting to cook and clean house for his partner and have his dinner ready for him when he comes home — and to throw Jamie and us several curve balls on his way to finding Mr. Right. At first we think he and Monty are going to get together — when he puts Monty on the train to Boston we’re half expecting a scene in which Monty will get off the train at the last minute and say that this Jamie, not the woman waiting for him back home in Boston, is the only person he really loves.

Later we get the impression that Ross is steering us to expect Jamie and Hal to pair off, but the final resolution [spoiler alert!] is something else altogether. Out of sheer desperation, Jamie gets one of his straight co-workers, Ray Milano (Matt Edwards), drunk, brings him to his apartment, shows him straight porn and eventually gives him enough of a case of the blue balls that Ray doesn’t resist when Jamie goes down on him — only when Ray realizes that he’s just had sex with a guy he does a Crying Game-style puke into Jamie’s toilet and decides to “out” Jamie at work by stealing a blank check, using Jamie’s official signature stamp, and taking it to the adult bookstore, where he buys three dildos and five Gay porn DVD’s and plants them in Jamie’s locker. But Jamie is saved by the bookstore clerk (Sal Amato), who remembers Ray — not Jamie — as the man who bought those items with that bad check — and the garage’s owner, Chuck (Paul Stark) — a heavy-set man with beautiful long hair whom I thought was the nicest-looking guy in the movie — not only sticks up for Jamie but turns out to be Gay himself: Jamie and Chuck end up in a clinch and the final scene shows them moving out to suburbia with Lesbian couple Wilma and Betty (Rebeca Strohmer and Katie O’Hara) to fulfill yet another one of Hal’s crazy schemes: to cover themselves by each pairing off with the other’s partner for neighborhood consumption while they remain boy-boy and girl-girl when the doors are closed and the lights are low.

Get a Life isn’t a great movie, but it’s a solidly entertaining one, and like a lot of the best 1930’s “B”’s it’s not afraid to play with the clichés and throw the audience a few curveballs by leading us up one set of movie-created expectations and then delivering something quite different. Ross also composed the songs for the film — and though he’s not a great songwriter, nor are he and the other singers who perform them (members of a band called “The Suck Puppets”!) incredible singers, nonetheless the songs have a dorky charm and actually reflect the events of the film and work towards the dramatic effect instead of just being there like a lot of pop songs trotted into today’s movies. Charles faulted the casting of Brian Campbell as Jamie on the ground that he wasn’t as unattractive and troll-ish as the character was described in Ross’s script — but I thought Campbell worked beautifully: the whole point of the character was that he was far more attractive, both physically and as a personality, than he thought he was.

The film had one interesting effect on me: as someone who’s been out of this part of the Gay lifestyle since the late 1980’s, I was unpleasantly reminded of just how frustrating the life of a single Gay man (especially one who doesn’t resemble the “official” physical ideal of the moment) can be and how much sheer energy and time and money can be expended in search of a man who maybe, just might, be willing to be persuaded to possibly have sex with you. Though the rather odd tag line of this film is, “Remember — don’t get married!,” for me it made me that much happier that Charles and I are married and I don’t have to worry about who my next sex partner is going to be!