In & Out

Nashville Scene


REVIEWED: 09-29-97

Remember a movie called To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar? Its trailer, set to a rocking disco beat, showed three drag queens saving a Midwestern town from ignorance, sexism, and sepia-toned dullness. The few who went to see it got exactly what the trailer and the lavish PR blitz promised. But after a mild ripple in the public consciousness caused by the sight of Wesley Snipes and Patrick Swayze in dresses--John Leguizamo excited no disturbance--Wong Foo faded into video stores.

Two years later, here comes In & Out. Its trailer, set to a rocking disco beat, shows a high school teacher in a Midwestern town who is publicly declared to be gay on the eve of his wedding. All his attempts to assert his heterosexuality end in laughable failure. In & Out too has a massive advertising campaign of full-page ads, saturation television, sneak previews, the works. The difference is that In & Out is guaranteed to be a smash.

Why the difference? Because the trailer promises that In & Out is not a movie about being gay--it's a movie about being thought to be gay when you're actually not. (You should stop reading now if you don't want the movie's surprises spoiled.) The ad campaign makes In & Out look like a satire on the current media hunger for coming-out stories. The trailer emphasizes Kline shouting, "I'm not gay!," and the poster is deliberately careful--a picture of Kline in a rumpled tuxedo holding some flowers. The audience is thus primed to laugh itself hoarse as gay stereotypes are applied willy-nilly where they don't belong. Liberal Hollywood and the press, always pushing homosexuality in our faces, will get a good skewering by the other 90 percent of us.

It comes as something of a shock, then, when In & Out turns out to be much more like the coming-out episode of Ellen than a parody of it. Because of the gap between the movie that was promised to me and the movie I got, I felt uneasy about In & Out even while I was enjoying its well-turned wackiness. Screenwriter Paul Rudnick also wrote Jeffrey, a very funny 1995 farce about a gay man who swears off sex because of AIDS, only to find temptation at every turn. Knowing that Rudnick writes about gay culture from the inside is the only subtle clue whether In & Out is actually going to be in...or out.

Rudnick brings the same gag-laced, broad tone to this movie that Jeffrey had, and director Frank Oz matches it with his own loopy sensibility. Cameron Drake (Matt Dillon) outs his former teacher Howard Brackett (Kevin Kline) in a parody Oscar telecast that includes wacky fake clips; a TV tabloid reporter (Tom Selleck) does a hilarious send-up of Hard Copy reportage as he stakes out Brackett's hometown of Greenleaf, Ind. Fantastical elements, like Brackett's losing battle with a masculinity-enhancement instructional tape, signal unmistakably that this comedy is about as close to reality as a Monty Python sketch. But because Kline is so likable and so in control of his comic instruments, we identify with Brackett in his plight right up to the climactic wedding scene--when, suddenly, we realize we're watching a much different movie from the one that has been advertised.

There are hints before this moment that the comfortable mistaken-identity plot isn't what it seems. An early joke about how gay sex is unnatural--it confuses the in holes with the out holes--reveals the misinformed homophobia of one of Brackett's students. At the same time, though, it causes a restless stirring in the audience, which isn't expecting its own attitudes to be lampooned. Isn't In & Out supposed to be defending straight people? Has the trailer lied to us?

In a word, yes. This may be a brilliant marketing strategy, aimed at keeping the real subject of the movie a surprise, but it's also blatant pandering to an audience who wouldn't go see a movie about gays. While humor about people defending themselves against the charge of homosexuality is commonplace (think Seinfeld), movies about gay characters appear only at the art house. Sure, The Birdcage hit it big with a mainstream audience, but its flaming heroes appealed to middle America in an exotic, alien fashion--like humanoid visitors from another planet. In & Out feels it has to trick multiplexers into caring about a gay man who doesn't wear makeup and sequins. Its hocus-pocus crumbles after the big revelatory wedding scene, when Brackett stops being a character and becomes a symbol for the redemption of Greenleaf.

Kline has hardly any lines in the last act, and Joan Cusack, playing his beleaguered fiancee, gets all the laughs. The filmmakers seem to understand that once Brackett's sexuality is no longer in doubt, he is no longer funny. But putting it so bluntly means that Mr. and Mrs. America in their aisle seats have nearly half a movie to reflect on the filmmakers' beliefs about them. Rudnick and Oz don't feel certain that the audience will, of its own accord, stand up and cheer for the confused hero, so they have surrogate middle Americans onscreen prompt them in a Spartacus-inspired ending. This is preaching, even if the medicine is sugar-coated with humor.

Combine that with the press campaign, which leads the audience to expect an antidote to the usual liberal one-world-ism, and I wouldn't blame the perceptive viewer for getting a bit testy, no matter what his politics. It's no fun to be told what you want by the ads--only to be reassured, once you've bought your ticket, that what you're getting is really much better for you.

In the final analysis, In & Out has exactly the same plot as To Wong Foo--gay people rescue a small town--just without the dresses and with a lot more laughs. Maybe the marketing folks at Paramount learned from the prior film's dismal box office that they needed to conceal In & Out's real agenda from viewers until moviegoers had paid their money. It can even be argued that since Rudnick and Oz's message is intact, this is no sell-out. But it's still a bait-and-switch.

--Donna Bowman

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In & Out

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In & Out

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