Closet case

In & Out goes both ways--funny and funnier

Howard and Emily's marriage is the talk of Greenleaf, Indiana, a small town idyllic enough to repel Norman Rockwell. The town has waited three years for the couple to make it official--and slimmed-down Emily (Joan Cusack) has waited three long years for Howard (Kevin Kline) to consummate their relationship. She's so pent-up from fasting and abstinence, she looks as though her head's about to explode; she likes Howard's mind, but she desperately needs his body. And Howard's mother, Beatrice (Debbie Reynolds), looks toward the couple's wedding as the fulfillment of her own fantasy: "I need some beauty, some music, place cards," she says, her sweet purr turning into a growl. "It's like heroin."

Howard had vowed he wouldn't marry Emily till his former student Cameron Drake (Matt Dillon) was nominated for an Oscar--and wouldn't you know, he gets the nod for his second film, a war epic in which he portrays a gay soldier kicked out of the Army for loving a comrade...and "not like a brother." When he picks up his award, Cameron thanks Howard, the man who taught him Shakespeare and sensitivity. "And he's gay!" Cameron announces in a triumphant gush--much to the surprise of everyone in Greenleaf, including Howard.

The trailer for In & Out is a tease, a come-on that asks but doesn't tell if Kline is a closet case or merely a breeder in touch with his feminine side. And throughout the film's first half, we're left to wonder the same thing--whether Howard will go through with his marriage or, finally, admit he didn't hold all those Barbra Streisand film festivals for nothing. In & Out is constructed almost like a thriller, a pile of hints that builds toward its surprise ending. In the process, director Frank Oz and gay screenwriter Paul Rudnick have created a movie that sneakily turns prejudice on its head. But there are also lots of yucks: At the Oscar ceremony, Cameron Drake beats out Paul Newman (nominated for Coot) and Michael Douglas (for Primary Urges); Cameron's supermodel girlfriend (Shalom Harlow), shallower than a kiddie pool, complains she has to "shower and vomit" before a fashion show; and Howard's father (Wilford Brimley) asks his son if "Barbra Streisand did something to ya."

Oz, once Jim Henson's right-hand man, treats human characters as though they were Muppets--most some variation on Oscar the Grouch. His characters have always been selfish, ornery bastards--the con men in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Bill Murray's nut-job patient and Richard Dreyfuss' psychiatrist in What About Bob?, Goldie Hawn and Steve Martin in Housesitter--who think the sun shines only for them. They're out to screw everyone, get what they want, then slink back into the muck. They aren't well-rounded people, but rather shadows defined by their faults and quirks, and they never do the right thing--unless it's by accident, or until it's too late. In In & Out, even Reynolds is a bitch till the very end, chastising a little girl by telling her, "Your mother's an alcoholic."

Tom Selleck's Peter Malloy initially fits the mold too: He's an openly gay TV "reporter" who takes being called sleazy as a compliment, who sets out to discover whether Howard's gay by interviewing his postman and students. Peter sees Howard as the human-interest story that will take him to the network,

that will legitimize his vapid career, and he'll do whatever it takes to prove Howard belongs to his team. He'll even kiss him gay, if that's what it takes.

Klein's the perfect actor to play Howard--a man so actory he probably signs his checks in that thin movie-poster type. When Kline plays it straight--Cry Freedom, Sophie's Choice, Grand Canyon--he's a ham trapped inside a straitjacket. He seems to confuse humor with humanity, draining his characters of all life in order to keep them from cracking a smile; he's so brittle, he's likely to break. But he's a great comic actor because he looks like a guy who shouldn't be one: The only thing exaggerated about Kline is his bland exterior, the superwhite-and-uptight facade that masks the maniac within.

When he gets hold of a great part, like the idiot in A Fish Called Wanda or the romantic thief in French Kiss, Kline becomes a carnival of goofy mannerisms and grotesque accents, Groucho and Harpo and Chico trapped in the body of a Juilliard-trained ac-tor. He doesn't just act--he adapts his malleable mug until even his blinks seem exaggerated. As Howard, Kline revels in playing a man confused by his sexuality, who's trying to prove to everyone--his fiancee, his parents, the town, most of all himself--that he's not gay. Kline plays it both ways, doing butch and "sissy man" with such abandon, he might as well be bi (an option the film never offers). He'd love sonnets even if he were straight--or is that gay?

Somewhere deep inside In & Out is a thoughtful film about a small town's struggle to cope with a teacher's sexuality; there's even a sad little scene in which members of the basketball team hide from Howard, afraid their just-outed teacher wants a locker-room peek. But it's a throwaway scene, drowned out by the jokes that follow: Oz and Rudnick don't care if you think, only that you laugh at anything that moves.

In & Out.
Kevin Kline, Joan Cusack, Tom Selleck, Matt Dillon, Debbie Reynolds, Bob Newhart. Written by Paul Rudnick. Directed by Frank Oz. Opens Friday.

 
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