Friday, September 10, 2010

200 American (Third Day Productions, 2003)

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

I was looking for something “different” for our evening movie and found it in 200 American, an enigmatically titled Gay-themed independent film from 2003 produced, directed and written by Richard LeMay. Charles had brought in a copy of this and I looked at a bit of it just to see what it was, then decided to make it our film for the evening and looked it up on, where it was described as a Gay romantic comedy. What it actually was was a quirky half-comedy, half-melodrama in which the central character is Conrad (Matt Walton), the openly Gay head of an advertising agency (and it’s a sign of the times that no one makes a big deal about this — he’s known around the office as a Gay man but it doesn’t seem to be affecting his career one way or the other) who’s known as a control freak both on and off the job. His control-freak tendencies have led to a breakup between him and his partner Martin (John-Dylan Howard) and when the movie opens he’s been single for three months, hasn’t had sex at all in that time and has decided to hire a male prostitute — whom he picks out from what appears to be a photo catalogue and calls directly on the phone. (This seemed awfully retro for a movie made and set in 2003: by now such dates are almost always made on the Internet.)

The hustler he hired duly shows up — he’s stopped at the door of his building but Conrad tells the doorman it’s O.K. to admit him — and introduces himself as Tyler (Sean Matic); he has an accent Conrad immediately recognizes as Australian (“Most people think I’m British,” he tells Conrad); and he won’t kiss Conrad but will do anything else with him as long as the money changes hands first. The film’s title comes from Tyler’s rates: 200 U.S. dollars (given that this is taking place in New York City one wonders what other sort of currency Tyler would expect to be paid in, though maybe we’re supposed to believe he gets a lot of tourists in from other countries) for a single sexual encounter and $1,000 for an entire evening. Conrad and Tyler go at it — director LeMay politely averts his cameras so his (mostly) straight actors don’t have to enact the actual homo down ’n’ dirty on screen — and Conrad is sufficiently satisfied that he offers Tyler the surcharge for a full night, only Tyler says he needs notice for that and he’s already booked himself with other clients. Conrad makes another date with Tyler for one week later and this time does reserve him for the entire evening — only to be disappointed when Tyler gets out of bed before Conrad does and is already ready to leave by the time Conrad wakes up.

Nonetheless their Gay-for-pay relationship continues and Conrad tells the story to his friend Louis (Mark Ford), a stereotypical Black dreadlocked gossip queen who can’t believe Conrad is actually paying for something others — especially others with Conrad’s physical and financial assets — can get for free. Conrad explains that by paying for sex directly he remains in control of the situation. LeMay’s debt to the film Pretty Woman — which one of the characters actually mentions in the dialogue — is pretty obvious; at first 200 American seems to be going all-out to be a Gay version of Pretty Woman, with Conrad as Richard Gere’s character and Tyler (whose real name, it turns out, is Ian — Tyler is simply his nom de hustle) as Julia Roberts’ — only things take several turns from the Pretty Woman formula (which itself was merely an updated and slightly raunchier version of Cinderella!) when it turns out that Ian is also an aspiring photographer.

Conrad offers to put him on a $2000 per week retainer and get him an assignment as an assistant to famous photographer Ted Foster (Spencer Aste). Conrad’s art director, Michael (Anthony Ames, whom I thought was the most attractive man in the film and the one I’d most like to date), protests that he can’t impose an assistant on a photographer with a major reputation “just because you happen to be sleeping with him,” especially since Ted already has an assistant, Tony (Justin Durishin), whose job seems to be holding the reflector during outdoor photo shoots so the light from the sun bounces off it and onto the models’ faces. Conrad’s deal with Ian includes complete and total access to Ian’s body whenever and wherever he wants it — including one tryst he orders Ian to have in an empty room at the ad agency during a work day. The plot lurches into quite a few more complications than LeMay can handle or keep track of as a writer; it turns out that Ian was lured to the U.S. by a lover named Douglas (whom we never see), only no sooner did he arrive than Douglas dumped him, and he hooked up with a woman named Sarah, who agreed to a pro forma marriage with him so he could stay in the U.S. but wanted $10,000 for the deal — which is why Ian started hustling: it was the only way he could think of to raise the money in time.

There’s an interesting scene during a break on a photo shoot in which Emily (Lucy Smith), the middle-aged but still reasonably attractive woman who owns the company Conrad’s agency is doing the photo shoots for, tells Conrad’s go-fer Heather (Constance Reardon) how hot she thinks Ian is and whether he would be available — but LeMay drops this plot twist almost as soon as he introduces it, a pity since the potential complications of a male hustler with a (mostly) Gay clientele who’s engaged to a woman but is really a closeted Gay man being approached by a female as a potential client would have been interesting — a lot more interesting than some of the plot devices LeMay actually did concoct. Among these are two weirdly misfired attempts at comedy — Tony takes Heather to an S/M dungeon called “Spank,” negotiates a mysterious transaction with the club’s (Black) owner, tricks Heather into being locked in a cage and then leaves her there (it turns out, in an even more retro plot gimmick than Conrad picking up his hustler by phone instead of online, that Tony is actually kidnapping women and selling them into white slavery in Saudi Arabia — and Heather escapes this fate only because the police were tailing Tony and arrested him and rescued her in the nick of time); and later Conrad goes to visit his ex, Martin, and catches him entertaining someone else; they end up in the building’s elevator and it gets stuck, leaving them trapped for three hours in a little box with two Black women who quite naturally resent having to listen to these two white Queers arguing at fortissimo volume — and a quite nice scene in which Conrad, invited to visit his parents, is forced to bring Martin along because his parents liked Martin and wouldn’t want to hear that they’d broken up. (At the end of the visit, with Conrad blurting out the secret, Conrad’s dad takes Martin aside and says that just because he’s just broken up with Conrad doesn’t mean that Martin can’t still be their friend.)

The rest of the movie features Michael and Ian slowly falling in love with each other; Ian worried about how Michael will react when he finds out Ian has been hustling; a party at which Louis (ya remember Louis?) blurts out Ian’s secret; and an old-line 1930’s Hollywood-style ending in which there’s a temporary misunderstanding before Michael and Ian finally pair up, and Conrad and Martin reconcile (though LeMay neglected to make Conrad’s “comeuppance” believable and we’re not convinced that Conrad is going to give up his control-freak tendencies just to keep his relationship together). I couldn’t help but compare 200 American to another film I saw recently that was a similar low-budget production (also shot on video instead of film) and also dealing with a Gay theme, Get a Life, and though it’s nice that Richard LeMay was able to concoct a Gay story in which none of the principals are involved in the casual-sex scene (even Conrad picks up a hustler at least in part because for a man like him it beats hanging out in bathrooms, bookstores and bathhouses looking for quickie tricks), 200 American is a much less entertaining film than Get a Life.

Part of the problem is endemic to any movie that tries for both humor and drama — done well (the way Chaplin did at his best) the humor and pathos reinforce each other; done poorly they just wrench us back and forth from one sort of story to another and create an uncertain tone which makes the film less entertaining than it otherwise would have been. Had LeMay abandoned the loony gags and worked out more believable ways to eliminate Tony as a character, get Ian the job as Ted Foster’s assistant and set up the reconciliation between Conrad and Martin (which is obviously what he thought should happen from the get-go even though it’s his single major deviation from the Pretty Woman template with which he started his script), he’d have had a stronger film. Had he been a bit clearer on Conrad’s preference in bed — some of the early dialogue hints that Conrad’s a bottom, and had LeMay stuck with that he could have drawn some interesting ironies between Conrad taking the active role in his business and the passive role in bed — and more ambiguous about Ian’s true sexual orientation, he would have given himself more to work with and had a much richer, deeper and more satisfying movie.

If Ian had been drawn as Bisexual, and had it been a woman (whom he would have been expecting to marry) instead of a man who had brought him to New York and then dumped him — and had he started hustling purely as a Gay-for-pay rent boy and only gradually discovered that he actually liked sex with men — his character would have been more powerfully ambiguous and LeMay could have got in some notions that challenged the essentialist “we’re born that way” version of sexual orientation and reflected the way people actually lived (much like the makers of Brokeback Mountain did — as disappointed as I was in much of that film and as overrated as I still think it was, it got that right: the characters’ sexualities were not crammed into nice neat little boxes labeled ‘straight” and “Gay” but had more of the ambiguity and confusion of the way people actually live and the attractions they sometime feel no matter how they define themselves on the straight-to-Queer continuum). But I suspect LeMay, whose business model was no doubt predicated on making a profit by selling DVD’s to Gay male buyers, probably didn’t want to do something that would rock his audience’s expectations in that fashion.

It also doesn’t help that 200 American isn’t that well acted; LeMay was criticized for using mostly heterosexual men to play his Gay characters, and while that’s bothered me in the past (when I read in the Los Angeles Times that Robin Williams was being considered for a Harvey Milk biopic, I wrote a letter to the editor that said, “Hiring a straight man to play Harvey Milk makes about as much sense as hiring a white man to play Martin Luther King” — and when the Milk movie finally got made with card-carrying het Sean Penn, I avoided it until its DVD release largely because of my upset that they hadn’t cast an openly Gay actor — though Penn’s performance, while not reflecting everything that could have been done with the part, at least was good enough that for two hours I suspended disbelief and accepted him as a Gay man) it bothered me this time less than LeMay’s defense, which was that he wanted “strong, realistic acting” and didn’t think he could get that from openly Gay actors. (His argument seemed to be that the genuinely talented Gay actors are all closeted and scared to death of being “outed” from the reasonable fear that it will destroy their chances at mainstream stardom.)

Well, he didn’t get “strong, realistic acting” from the actors he did hire, who seemed to be O.K. with the limited amount of physical affection LeMay obliged them to show (just a few quick kisses and body strokes) but whose delivery of dialogue, while hardly at the porn-star level of incompetence, didn’t have the kind of tough, intense conviction I would have expected from professional actors either. I wouldn’t be going on at this length about a film that left me as cold as 200 American did except that it’s a film I wanted to be able to like, yet another bad movie that with more care and imagination in the scripting stage and a stronger cast could have been quite good even on the limited budget LeMay had available.