Sunday, July 22, 2007

Two Critical Takes on the New Adam Sandler Picture

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, a seemingly dispensable Adam Sandler vehicle, has elicited some interesting commentary from a pair of New York critics. The film, concerning a fake domestic partnership between two macho New York firefighters (Sandler and Kevin James) in order to prevent the loss of a pension, was largely dismissed by straight reviewers as crude, unfunny nonsense with little of interest to say on the issue of gay rights, but two gay critics, Nathan Lee of The Village Voice and Ed Gonzalez of Slant Magazine showed a greater willingness to grapple with the film's take on homophobia and, while ultimately their opinions on the film's merits differed (Lee liked it; Gonzalez did not), both offered intelligent insights into the work, showing how even a seemingly irrelevant piece of entertainment often conceals larger issues. Both Lee and Gonzalez are acute, perceptive critics often given to spicing up their reviews with jokey asides and hip witticisms that distract from their analysis. In Lee's case these indulgences tend to overwhelm the substance of his reviews; in Gonzalez's they usually do not. In dealing with a light comedy like Chuck and Larry, inevitably this jokey side of each critic emerges, but in both cases it is balanced by useful critical analysis.

Nathan Lee's review ("Queer as Folk", The Village Voice, July 17, 2007) begins at a typically leisurely pace, full of asides, in no rush to develop its argument. But after wasting a couple of paragraphs talking about his dislike of Adam Sandler (and Scarlett Johannson), his taste in men and his domestic partnership, Lee finally gets down to business. Starting in the third paragraph, he launches an eloquent defense of the film as a radical pro-gay document. Even here, however, Lee feels the need to preface his analysis with a snide prologue: "Somewhere at GLAAD [Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation] headquarters, girlfriend is about to choke on her quiche, but here goes." Still, after this unnecessary introduction, Lee lays off the ironic observations for a paragraph or two and plays it straight (so to speak). Comparing Chuck and Larry to Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain, Lee finds the current film to be the more daring and important work. Where Brokeback Mountain brought to the surface the underlying gay content of the classic western by transporting it to a more palatable genre, the "upsacle weepie", a genre whose partisans are more likely to accept gay coupling than those of the western (Brokeback Mountain is a western only in setting), Chuck and Larry forces fans of the idiot comedy ("a far less adventurous demographic") to accept the possibility of a homosexual relationship.

Still, Lee's argument is weakened by his failure to distinguish between Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, who play an actual gay couple in Brokeback Mountain, and Adam Sandler and Kevin James in the current film who are only pretending. As Lee writes, "gay themes won't deter the Sandler cult, who can rely on their man not to be a fag," but that is precisely why the film is not as bold a proposition as Brokeback Mountain since there is no question of Sandler actually being gay. Still, by asking macho viewers to identify with a couple who are treated as gay (regardless of their actual orientation), it forces them to partake of the feelings of ostracism experienced by the couple. In addition, Sandler's courtroom speech at the film's climax in which he urges his audience (both onscreen and off) to stop using the word "faggot", comes off, in Lee's analysis, as a bold and defiant maneuver. Lee makes some fairly exaggerated claims for the picture and, even if some are less than fully convincing, he manages to make a well-considered and eloquent argument in favor of the film's empowering strategies. Capable of such strong and well-written analysis, it is unfortunate that he feels the need to indulge in the kind of silly, facetious writing that too often obscures his more serious purposes. Still, this strain of writing does allow him to provide the film with some interesting blurb material when he sums up his feelings on the picture by writing about himself, "this sodomite had a gay old time."

Ed Gonzalez's review (Slant Magazine, posted July 17, 2007) takes a much more critical view of the picture, dismissing it as a "120-minute PSA". After indulging in a rather obnoxious first paragraph in which he speculates on the sexual orientation of film's writers, Gonzalez gets down to an analysis of the film's attitudes towards homosexuality. Ultimately, he concludes, the film is "pro-gay but it's less interested in collapsing straight-male hang-ups about gay men than it is in putting on a surprisingly mawkish show of political correctness against distinctly retrograde forms of homophobia." In other words, the film plays up obviously exaggerated gay stereotypes (presumably the stereotypes that the film's core audience is used to seeing) only to explode them in rather obvious fashion. The film's good-natured attack on homophobia is undercut by its own simplicity as well as its "desperate need for gay validation" (Gonzalez sees the film as an apology for the homophobia of Sandler's Big Daddy). Between Gonzalez's jokey asides, he offers a shrewd reading of the film, showing how its simplistic view of homophobia undercuts its gracious attempt to appeal to unreflective viewers in the name of gay rights. It is not the gay stereotypes that the film continues to perpetuate that undermine its project so much as the filmmakers' "vulgar self-congratulation" at taking on an important issue, even while reducing it to its simplest possible formulation, and then expecting applause from the gay community for its efforts. Where Nathan Lee sees this forced homosexual identification among a traditionally homophobic audience as a radical move, for Gonzalez this strategy is compromised by the filmmakers' too simplistic understanding of the situation and their desperate need for affirmation.

What is impressive about both reviews is each critic's sophisticated analysis of not only the way in which the picture functions on its intended audience (heterosexual Sandler fans), but how it can be viewed by a more sophisticated (homo- or heterosexual) demographic. These reviews point up the social and political implications of even the most seemingly insignificant bit of Hollywood entertainment. Every film inevitably expresses an attitude towards the world it portrays and often mainstream films, through their seeming neutrality, end up espousing a conservative viewpoint that argues for the continuation of the social, political, and (especially) aesthetic status quo. Here, a film that explicitly tackles social issues under the guise of a light comedic program is subjected to critical analysis and found by one critic to be a "radical" gesture, while another dismisses it is as tedious public service announcement. What is important is that neither critic allows the film simply to stand as a harmless bit of entertainment, realizing that all entertainment functions in a more sophisticated manner than what the average filmgoer perceives. Lee and Gonzalez's critical analyses shrewdly illustrate the full range of social and political implications that the film elicits and serve in themselves as significant works of social, as well as cinematic, commentary.

1 comment:

gina landi said...

nice meta-review, and mega-early (5something a.m., really?)