"What you shove up your asses is your business," Dan Aykroyd declares in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, and damned if that isn't the most progressive sentiment to come out of a Hollywood film so far this year. A toddler step next to the mile-wide backwards leap of 300, but still. The trouble is, he's talking to Adam Sandler and Kevin James, who know their usual audiences would scarcely take to them as true-blue queers, not in a mainstream, PG-13 update of some Three's Company episode. Sandler and James are Chuck and Larry, New York City firefighters and lifelong friends suddenly posing as a couple signing for domestic partnership. Larry is nonplussed: "You mean faggots?" No, of course not, the two are hetero as hetero can be -- Larry is a loyal widower with two kids and Chuck is a diligent lothario whose bed accommodates a whole troop of Maxim juggies. Why the farce, then? Besides the whole ensuring-medical-benefits-for-Chuck's-kids deal, there is the high-concept hook: The "gay Sandler movie" is probably a tougher sell these days than the "9/11 Sandler movie" earlier this year, though any studio anxiety must have been pacified by the sheer number of juicy butt-shots of Jessica Biel, who plays the duo's crazy-hot lawyer in the midst of the inevitable investigation. Flaming punchlines and pleas for tolerance vie for the center stage: With their charade under scrutiny, they dash for K-Y jelly and Streisand CDs and, at the kids' school, are banished from Little League duties; basketball turns verboten at the station and, during shower time, the soap is dropped with a thunderous thud.
As a bone tossed towards rainbow solidarity, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry lands somewhere between the castrating tastefulness of Brokeback Mountain and the you-know-how-I-know-you're-gay jokes Judd Apatow likes so much. Despite their accepted status as lowbrow pablum for the college-dorm demographic, Sandler flicks are nevertheless no strangers to homo strains: "They watch different porn" is how the star casually sums up the divide between himself and the two kissing dudes in Big Daddy, while the pistol-to-ass gag in Bulletproof straddles the genre's obligatory gay-panic and the notion of that film as a suppressed love story between Sandler and Damon Wayans. Chuck and Larry is pitched accordingly as an apology for past homophobia, complete with contributions from Oscar-winning writers Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor (whose customary classist disdain, carried over from About Schmidt and Sideways, is at least tempered by the bluntness of Dennis Dugan's direction). Daring is predictably compromised: Sandler sneaks up on an ass-swirling bunny at a "Homo-a-palooza" so that David Spade at his rattiest can be revealed as the object of desire, while the daintiness of James' musical-infatuated son is accepted only after he employs it to clock a bully in the nuts. Yet there's a bizarre aptness (and possible self-critique, even) to the pair's wedding ceremony in Canada, where the phoniness of the characters' gayness seems to be further exposed and heightened by Rob Schneider's Jerry-Lewis-in-Japanese-drag act -- the sequence's surreal fakery lies in sharp contrast to the apparent genuineness of the climax, where Sandler, like Chaplin in The Great Dictator, appears to step out of character to orate on the hurtfulness of prejudice at a court held by Richard Chamberlain, no less. In the end, the movie displays considerable heart but no genitals to speak of.
In both its incarnations as John Waters's splendid original satire and its Broadway outgrowth, Hairspray is itself a queer artifact, and the new movie version, like Chuck and Larry, has another star in mock-feminine drag. Decked out in a spherical fat suit as Edna Turnblad, a 1962 Baltimore hausfrau, John Travolta mostly lets the latex give the performance for him, too awkwardly aware of his resemblance to one of the dancing hippos in the "Dance of the Hours" number in Fantasia to reach for the operatic aplomb of such genuine queens as Divine or Harvey Fierstein. Travolta's stunt-mincing is nonetheless the only obstacle to savoring the effervescence of the film, which is the first musical since the genre's so-called resurrection with Moulin Rouge! that's actually enjoyable. Much of the fun comes from director-choreographer Adam Shankman's happy acceptance of musical staples -- no need to pin down a number against a proscenium or inside a character's head, "pleasingly plump" teen heroine Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) shimmies down the street and sings her love to rats and flashers and the filmmaker only needs to adjust his crane to better show it. Tracy's dream comes true when she lands a spot in The Corny Collins Show, a TV dance program run by Velma (Michelle Pfeiffer), a Botox-gorgon bent on promoting her own WASP-bitch daughter (Brittany Snow) while making sure that the "race music" presence is kept only to the weekly "Negro Day" segregation; from there it's an ebullient race toward integration, capturing the racial and body-image politics of showbiz better than anything in Dreamgirls. Plus, there's Queen Latifah in supple vocal form, Christopher Walken all-too-briefly back in soft-shoe mode, Elijah Kelley's matchless hoofing and, no less show-stoppingly, his kiss with Amanda Bynes. There is still a loooong way to go when interracial smooches and guy-on-guy pecks can still startle audiences.
"Plus ça change...," and all that. It's but a skip from the Inquisition to Gitmo, Milos Forman posits in Goya's Ghosts, where Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem) defends the darkness of the painter's work as a reflection of "the true face of our world," then reminds his fellow inquisitors to stay vigilante in "these troubled times" (1792 Spain, namely). Unlike the jejune De Sade of Philip Kaufman's Quills, Goya (Stellan Skarsgård) here is less nonconformist than observer, a rather colorless aesthete snugly wedged between Lorenzo and Inés (Natalie Portman), a young model who's arrested by the Church as a "Judaizer" for refusing a plate of pork, tortured, and thrown to rot in the dungeon. History is in continuous upheaval, King Carlos IV (Randy Quaid) is replaced by a Napoleonic puppet, in turn replaced by the conquering Wellington; Lorenzo exits disgraced by the Inquisition and returns a crusader of the French Enlightenment, only to see the tables turn yet again at the end of a garrote. The idea of Goya as a gentle spirit fueling his art with the horrors around him is so underdeveloped that the man responsible for The Disasters of War and Saturn Devouring his Son comes to literalize the title's phantoms, and the dual casting of Portman as a victimized rag-doll and her own harlot daughter is a Buñuelian switcheroo (the redoubtable Jean-Claude Carrière cowrote the screenplay) that could have only come off with a more suave handling. Cumbersome and often stilted, Goya's Ghosts remains a worthy drama, a Forman lesson in anti-CGI craftsmanship (patiently reflected in the creation of an engraving) and in the cruel comedies of power and resistance.
Reviewed July 28, 2007.