Film Reviews

Friends With Benefits

I wanted to hate I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, truly I did. Two straight guys pretending to be gay (insert fiscal excuse here); been there, done that (insert all known variants on The Odd Couple here). Rampant homophobia hiding behind liberal pleas for tolerance—blech. And it's true that stereotypes pour out of Chuck & Larry like cheap wine. But to the degree that it's anything other than a showcase for Adam Sandler, the movie is about the inseparability of homophobia and deep sexual anxiety—and what better force field for that little can of worms than a Brooklyn firehouse, where two hyper-hetero firemen file for domestic partnership in order to lock down pension benefits for one of them.

Stalled in grief for his dead wife and worried about providing for the children he adores despite the fact that the girl loves sports and the boy, quelle horreur, tap-dancing, Larry (King of Queens' Kevin James) refuses to remarry, for benefits, a woman he might actually get close to. But when he discovers a new clause allowing for gay partner benefits, he asks his best-friend-forever, Chuck (Adam Sandler), to fake a marriage. It's a stretch to buy Sandler, whose character likes to entertain whip-toting Hooters girls in his horribly decorated bachelor pad, as a Lothario, let alone as Mr. February in the fire-station calendar, when he's always been a prototype for every nerdy boy I knew in Hebrew school. But love him or hate him, Sandler understands, if sometimes more in the breach than the observance, that winking at the audience can derail a comedy in seconds, and that if you're going to offend liberal sensibilities you have to go all the way. For all the sitcom capering, he and James play out their skittish partnership absolutely straight, if that's the word.

So, this strenuously odd couple grows, bed-sharing included, into the genuinely endearing Honeymooners couple they've always been at heart, while the world around them erupts into an orgy of limp wrists, ethnic stereotypes and closet cases, among them a suitably weasely Steve Buscemi as a government investigator whose fastidious fanny pack says it all about the ferocity with which he hunts down fake gays. Fat jokes abound, and I'd give anything to see the outtakes from a seemingly endless breast-fondling scene between Sandler and dainty Jessica Biel, who as the couple's trusting defense lawyer displays more guts than talent for physical comedy. No holds are barred, either, in the movie's funniest scene, in which a bunch of red-blooded firefighters, freaking out at the sight of allegedly gay bums, do strange things with soap in the communal shower. If nothing else, Chuck & Larry should open up a whole new career path for the ineffably funny, unself-consciously buck naked Ving Rhames as an über-macho firefighter who's been sitting on a little secret of his own.

Astonishingly, Chuck & Larry's screenplay is credited to Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, with whom one doesn't associate such go-for-it vulgarity, though there were hints of raunch to come in the famous hotel sequence between Thomas Haden Church and Sandra Oh in Sideways. Chuck & Larry's studied crassness warms up the writing team's chic nihilism, and assuming that they haven't been heavily rewritten by co-screenwriter Barry Fanaro, late of The Golden Girls, or director Dennis Dugan—whom we have to thank for Big Daddy, Happy Gilmore and The Benchwarmers, and who has a cameo here as a gay-baiting cab driver—they go at it with such beguiling gusto and heart that I totally bought the movie's dust-covered message about the primacy of friendship over sexual preference. It is far worse to be a jerk than to be homo, hetero or any other kind of sexual, and listening to Chuck and Larry defend their union to an austere city councilman (yes, that is Richard Chamberlain), you, too, will be willing to bare your hairy bottom for AIDS research. Don't ask.

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Ella Taylor
Contact: Ella Taylor

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