Larry Valentine is a worried man. A third-generation firefighter and widow with two young kids, he doesn’t have any financial benefits to pass on to them in case he dies before they’re fully grown. (How is he able to afford that lazy housekeeper, though?) Not at all ready to start dating again (he’s still in love with his late wife who died three years ago under mysterious circumstances; he still keeps all her clothes in his bedroom closet), he ultimately comes up with what he thinks is the perfect solution: have a fake, gay relationship with his best friend and fellow fireman Chuck Levine. That way, Chuck gets the benefits after he dies and he can pass them onto Larry’s children. (But what if Chuck dies before Larry?)
Chuck (Adam Sandler) owes Larry (Kevin James) big time. While screwing around in a burned out building their Brooklyn company has just collectively put out, Larry saves his buddy’s life. Reluctantly, the womanizing Chuck agrees to go with him to sign up for a domestic partnership. Larry assures his sexist, violent, anti-gay pal (Chuck openly uses the word “faggot” without any hesitation) that everything will be kept on the down low.
Never anticipating that such an impromptu decision would trigger a routine public investigation into possible fraud (we learn they’re not the first to attempt this scam), Chuck & Larry find themselves in an impossible situation having to prove at every turn they’re really gay and really committed to each other.
And therein lies the fundamental problem with I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry. We don’t buy them as a gay couple. Hell, we don’t even buy them as friends. How can we when Chuck is merciless towards Larry, constantly making fun of his weight, slapping him like a Stooge and cruelly imitating his dead wife’s voice, usually when they’re in Larry’s bed together. (To make the ruse believable, Chuck moves in with Larry’s family temporarily.)
Clocking in at a punishing two hours, it takes forever for all but two characters in the movie to figure out what the entire audience is aware of from the very beginning. Only Chuck & Larry’s fire chief (Dan Ackroyd) and a very nosy investigator with a patriotic fanny pack (Steve Buscemi) catch on right away.
Belatedly realizing they didn’t really think this stupid plan through, Chuck & Larry consult a lawyer (Jessica Biel). The promiscuous Chuck (who gets most of his action because he’s Mr. February in a fireman’s calendar) falls in love with her the moment he meets her but, of course, he can’t doing anything about his feelings because he’s supposed to be Larry’s gay partner. Biel & Sandler don’t have any chemistry anyway so it’s a moot point. (As an aside, why is she always laughing at his terrible jokes? Sigh, I digress.)
To put them at ease, she suggests they get married in Canada. (At the time this film was made, New York didn’t have same-sex marriage laws, so how would this be recognized in the state exactly?) So they drive to Niagara Falls, Ontario to get hitched by the most offensive character in the film, a Japanese bridal chapel minister played by Rob Schneider. Yes, Rob Schneider. Instead of casting an actual Asian actor, he’s in yellowface and speaks in a stereotypical accent. (However, in a very funny, ironic moment near the end of the film, during a second wedding ceremony he makes an excellent point about Canada’s pioneering acceptance of gay marriage while taking a dig at America’s reticence about it. It’s the biggest laugh in this mostly humourless travesty.)
As we all know, a marriage, be it gay or straight, isn’t considered official until the couple has sex. It has to be consummated. But obviously, Chuck & Larry don’t even dare to discuss this. (They can’t even kiss each other, for God’s sake.) They just come right back to New York hoping to fool the right people while still maintaining their regular heterosexual lives in front of everybody else.
That doomed plan inevitably falls apart when they’re invited by their lawyer to a gay masquerade party, a fundraiser for AIDS research. When it’s over, they exit the building and are confronted by anti-gay religious demonstrators who chant “Gay is not the way!” After taking one look at one weeping gay man being consoled by another, Chuck, now suddenly a protector of gay rights, tries to get the protesters to leave. When they don’t, he slugs the minister (former Daily Show correspondent Rob Corddry) who twice calls him a “faggot”. What a hypocrite.
On a slow news day, the incident makes the front page of The New York Post and now everybody knows about Chuck & Larry. This leads to baffling scenes where once-loyal members of their firehouse don’t want to play basketball with them anymore (are they sure it’s not because they were always owning their asses on the court?) and at one point, even circulate an in-house petition insisting they be transferred. Larry is told at his son’s school that he’s not welcome to coach Little League or be involved in any of his extracurricular activities. Larry ends up assaulting the guy who tells him this. Why not the screenwriters?
It’s not all bad. Their well-intentioned charade inspires the quietly scowling new transfer to their firehouse (Ving Rhames) to reveal a predictable secret for the first time and when they face a public grilling over their relationship (overseen in a hearing by Richard Chamberlain, of all people), the gay community comes out to support them and to counter anti-gay protesters.
I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry is a very dumb, meanspirited movie for a whole lot of reasons but its biggest transgression, next to having only a handful of laughs (David Spade providing two of them in a very funny two-scene cameo), is its fake support for homosexuals. It wants to use the shield of tolerance to get away with its insulting jokes.
Chuck & Larry have no real clue what it means to be discriminated against for your sexuality because at any moment they can confess the truth and it all stops. They’re never beaten, they don’t lose their jobs (even the circulating firehouse petition permits them to work for a different company), they’re not kicked out of their homes and beyond one guy calling Chuck a “faggot”, they don’t face a barrage of verbal insults, either. With the exceptions of a bold mailman (Robert Smigel) and a rude cop (ESPN’s Dan Patrick), they’re not even personally harassed. So, how can they truly understand what it means to be gay? (Firemen don’t want to play basketball with you anymore? Big deal. They weren’t worthy opponents, anyway.)
Their “acceptance” doesn’t seem the least bit genuine. In fact, it feels awfully sudden. (How and when did Larry become ok with his feminine son’s theatrical aspirations?) It can take a considerable amount of time to reverse one’s views on any difficult subject, especially if the ones you have have been ingrained in you since childhood. Chuck & Larry’s transformation feels more convenient than heartfelt. Being an ally of the gay community means a whole lot more than simply renouncing the use of the word “faggot”.
There’s a scene during the AIDS fundraiser where Larry has to use the bathroom. Dressed as an apple, possibly as an homage to those old Fruit Of The Looms underwear ads, he’s terrified about running into an actual gay man. He checks every stall to make sure he’s alone. He is and nothing happens. Even if someone was in there, still nothing would’ve happened. If he went back there at the end of the movie, wouldn’t he react the exact same way?
When Chuck & Larry try to figure out how to pass for gay, they rely on tired stereotypes. Chuck once answers the phone not with a “hello?” but with a “balls and wieners”. (Name one real gay person who says that.) They both go shopping for Wham! and Liza Minnelli CDs. (Come on.) Meanwhile, New York Mets fan Larry is terrified that his son, who can do an incredible flat split, is more interested in tap dancing and singing show tunes, than playing baseball. He should be more concerned with his son’s annoying vocals and bad taste in music.
Aside from the film’s awkward views on the gay community and masculinity (why is that being a violent thug is held up as an attribute in so many Adam Sandler movies?), there’s the awful sexism of Chuck and its blatant misrepresentation. While in the hospital, he harasses his doctor who is insulted that he calls her “honey”. But later on, there she is in his bedroom (how come him and Larry aren’t living at the fire station?) with a whole bunch of Hooters girls (including Tila Tequila) eager to please him sexually. Honestly, is there anything less believable than Adam Sandler as a ladies man? He’s not particularly handsome, he has a repellent personality, he isn’t funny at all and, as the Chuck character, sees women has nothing more than hypersexual playthings to use for his own gratification, not fully realized human beings to get close to. (He orders & consumes an astonishing amount of porn.)
Sandler’s scenes with Jessica Biel, the world’s dumbest lawyer, are particularly painful to watch. At one point, he compliments her body (she strips down to a bra and panties right in front of him after they both come inside her place completely soaked from an outside rainfall) and she insists her breasts are real. This leads to an uncomfortable feel test that goes on way too long. The fact that she has a gay brother (the overly flamboyant Nick Swardson) makes you wonder why she’s not more skeptical of the transparently bogus Chuck & Larry.
Much has changed since the release of I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry in 2007. Many American states now allow same-sex marriage including New York. More public figures in predominantly heterosexual fields are coming out and being accepted. Even a number of Republicans support it, mostly because of gay family members.
Despite the persistence of dwindling prejudice, it still seems a bit of a stretch that an entire firehouse, even if it was remotely persuasive that Chuck & Larry were gay, would give two shits about their sexuality. (None of them seem to have an opinion about gays in general until the release of the New York Post story. And all of them are fully informed of their very real heterosexual histories.) To be overly generous, maybe a few would be upset but an entire company? Highly unlikely.
For a film so oblivious of its conflicted, and at times, off-puttingly preachy tone (Ackroyd’s tolerance speech at the hearing is far from sincere considering his earlier decision to have Chuck & Larry work on separate shifts), it seems more than aware of how boring it is. A number of lifeless scenes are scored, sometimes quietly, with catchy, familiar pop songs: Genesis’ Follow You Follow Me, Radiohead’s High & Dry, PM Dawn’s Set Adrift On Memory Bliss. It says a lot about this movie that I wanted them to crank up the jams and turn off the dialogue.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, January 2, 2015