Thursday, March 31, 2011

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (Universal/Relativity, 2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

One thing Charles and I did get at the grocery store two nights ago was a $3 close-out DVD of the movie I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, a 2007 Adam Sandler comedy which we’d previously avoided because the plot premise — two straight firefighters decide to pose as a Gay couple to get named as beneficiaries on each other’s pensions — sounded like it could be way too homophobic for our taste. Also I’m generally not a fan of modern-day comedies because the jokes tend to be way too vulgar. This time, however, the film, directed by Dennis Dugan from a script by Barry Fanaro and Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor from a “treatment” by Lew Gallo, itself based on an Australian film called Strange Bedfellows, turned out to be genuinely amusing and also surprisingly sensitive at times, largely because the jokes aren’t at the expense of Gay people but at the expense of people who hate Gay people.

The film takes over 15 minutes’ worth of exposition before we finally get to the “meat” of the plot and introduces us to firefighters Chuck Levine (Adam Sandler) and Larry Valentine (Kevin James, whose character’s name apparently came from that of the actor’s real-life brother, Gary Valentine). Larry is a widower with two kids, Eric (Cole Morgen) and Tori (Shelby Adamowsky) — Tori is unremarkable but Eric, though well below puberty, is showing all the stereotyped indicia of impending Gayhood, including a total disinterest in sports and a love of Broadway musicals (his grade school is performing Pippin and Annie Get Your Gun and he auditions for both). He’s never got over the death of his wife three years before — he’s kept all her clothes and turned their bedroom into a shrine — while his friend Chuck is not only single but has racked up a list of female conquests that would have made Don Juan blush: in the opening scene he’s confronted by a girlfriend de jour who’s having a jealous hissy-fit because Chuck bedded her twin sister, and Chuck not only worms his way out of it but has them on the point of deep-kissing each other on a dare when the firefighters are called to duty and they’re let off the hook. (The old gimmick of the interrupted kiss is used throughout the movie, including a cop-out ending that was forced on the filmmakers by the ratings board — more on that later.)

Larry gets worried about the risk of death on the job, especially after he rescues Chuck from a burning building (Chuck got caught up offering Larry yet another one of his dares — that he eat a rat that had been cooked by the blaze — when a floor gave way and sent him hurtling to the ground, and Larry caught him and saved his life), and he tries to have his firefighters’ pension and death benefits made over from his late wife to his children — only he’s told by a homely but man-hungry bureaucrat (Rachel Dratch) that he missed the deadline; he had only a year to file for changes after his wife died, but he could always marry again, and she practically glues herself to the lens as she strongly hints that if he wants to marry again, she’s offering herself as the party of the second part … The plot thickens when Larry sees an item in the New York Post announcing that the city’s domestic partnership law has just gone into effect, and he proposes that he and Chuck register as domestic partners to get each other named as their beneficiaries — only they attract the intention of anti-fraud investigators Glen Aldrich (Matt Winston) and the much-feared Clint Fitzer (Steve Buscemi, who’s practically the funniest person in the film — and who, according to, actually was a New York City firefighter before he became an actor), whom they meet sniffing through their garbage to see if it’s sufficiently “Gay.”

Worried that they’ll be prosecuted, they hire an attorney — a hot-looking straight woman named Alex McDonough (Jessica Biel) whom Chuck predictably falls in love, or at least lust, with at first sight (earlier we’ve seen Chuck’s seduction skills prove so formidable that the woman doctor who treated him after the blaze in which Larry saved his life, who was initially put off by his sexist attitude, ends up frolicking in his bedroom with him and five other girls) — and she advises that one way they can prove their Gay-couple bona fides is to cross the border into Canada and get (legally) married. They do that — at a ridiculous wedding chapel presided over by an Asian (Rob Schneider in heavy makeup) and with a crazy homeless man (Blake Clark) as their witness. When they return home Alex, who has a Gay brother, invites them to a major Gay fundraiser where Chuck punches out a radical-Right minister who’s picketing the event (he’s pretty obviously a caricature of Fred Phelps) and earns instant hero status among New York’s Gay community — only this leads to Fitzer busting them (especially after a New York Post feature comes out with statements from 17 women who’ve bedded Chuck) and putting them on trial in an administrative hearing presided over by Councilmember Banks (Richard Chamberlain), in which they’re dared to kiss each other in public to prove their love. (Earlier they were told to kiss each other after the wedding ceremony, but instead Chuck punched Larry out, then lied his way out of it by saying they were into S/M.)

In the original script they actually kissed, but then the filmmakers found that under the ratings-board rules, any depiction of homosexual affection in a film automatically earns it an “R” rating, so to keep their PG-13 they added a coda in which the hearing is interrupted by their captain in the fire department (Dan Aykroyd), who says they’re not Gay and ends up with the entire crew of their fire station being arrested as parties to the plot, though the embarrassed Councilmember Banks and Alex broker a deal that they get probation and the men of their fire station do a gag calendar and sell it as a benefit for AIDS research. Though I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry has its share of tasteless gags (notably one in which the two have to rescue a man so enormously fat that he literally can’t move under his own power — and as they’re hauling him out of the building he farts), it also has some surprisingly sensitive moments — notably the character of Fred G. Duncan (Ving Rhames), an African-American firefighter who’s inspired by the example of Chuck and Larry to come out as (genuinely) Gay himself.

Most of the Gay jokes in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry are at the expense, not of the Gays, but of the homophobes — indeed, the film’s best scene shows the men who have worked with Chuck and Larry for years backing away from them, getting scared shitless of being in the same shower room with them and refusing to work with them now that they think they’re Gay — and Chuck and Larry themselves telling them off. It’s an interesting issue and one that will probably get a lot more common once “don’t ask, don’t tell” is repealed and people who’ve served together in U.S. military units suddenly have to confront each other’s genuine sexual orientations. If anything, the movie reinforces Steven Zeeland’s contention in his books on Queers in the military that one of the reasons the military brass fought to keep the ban on Queers serving openly for so long was the sheer amount of physical horseplay, often verging on the sexual, men in these all-male macho settings indulge in, and the sense of innocence about it (as well as the ability to deny its implications) that will be lost once the straight participants know that there are Queers among them who have a quite different idea of what this sort of physical contact between men means.