July 26, 2007

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I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (PG-13)
Adam Sandler and Kevin James stumble dumbly through the mostly dud of a comedy I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, a movie that uses homophobic jokes to prove how not homophobic it is.

Chuck (Adam Sandler) and Larry (Kevin James) are Brooklyn firefighters who have worked together as partners for years. Though the best of friends, they have very different home lives. Chuck is a womanizing jerk who has a different girl (or several different girls) at his apartment every night. Larry is a widower still mourning his wife and trying to take care of his son and daughter.

In the aftermath of a fire, Chuck is almost killed and Larry saves him, at some risk to his own life. Afterward, Larry obsesses about what would have happened to his kids. His city-funded life insurance still lists his wife as the beneficiary and he’s waited too long since her death for the city to allow him to change it. The woman at the benefits office suggests he get married again. This, and a newspaper article about civil unions, gives Larry an idea — why not marry Chuck?

Why not? Well, there are probably a billion reasons including that it can’t actually be that hard to change a life insurance policy. Also, Chuck and Larry aren’t actually a gay couple, would be another good reason.

Damn the logic, however, this sitcomy, My Two Dads-like premise isn’t going to stop for anything as piddling as common sense.

So guilt and the image of Larry’s poor orphaned children convince Chuck to take a trip to city hall — in disguise, though, because he doesn’t want anyone to think he’s into dudes — and civilly unite with Larry.

At first, the plan seems to work out OK — Chuck becomes the beneficiary of Larry’s funds with the promise to look after his kids if anything happens. But then auditors from the benefits office start to poke around. It’s not enough that Chuck’s mail is sent to Larry’s house; the pair needs to live together.

Lawyer Alex McDonough (Jessica Biel), who thinks the union is legit, also suggests the couple head to Canada and get married. When she invites them to an AIDS benefit, the event is protested by a group of gay-hating wing-nuts and a suddenly-less-homophobic Chuck punches one of them. His photo winds up on the front of the newspaper and the civil union with Larry is outed to the world, including the meat-headed men at their firehouse.

Problems, naturally, arise. Chuck and Larry, who, though not gay, do indeed love each other, must make their brotherly bond seem romantic to keep from going to jail for fraud. Life at the firehouse becomes difficult. And Chuck, who slowly begins to understand the responsibility that might go into building a family, suddenly decides that his true love is Alex, who can’t know the truth about Chuck and Larry without herself becoming a party to fraud.

Also, Chuck and Larry are totally in danger of having to kiss.

For a movie that likes to throw in little moments of “yay, tolerance and diversity,” I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry frequently acts like men kissing is the worst thing that could happen. Unlike the raunchy comedy with an underlying sweetness that fuels the Farrelly Brother and Judd Apatow movies, Chuck and Larry has moments of what feel like actual uncomfortable laughing-at-you homophobia when the movie doesn’t care whether it’s laughing because Chuck is such a lout or because “ewww” is its response to dudes kissing. These moments seriously undermine the flecks of social commentary that make their way into the movie.

Most of jokes are old-school Sandler movies in their hamfistedness and in the way they all seem to go on a few beats too long. And, of course, David Spade and Rob Schneider, like minor cousins getting do-nothing union jobs on The Sopranos, make their obligatory appearance.

Normally, I try to avoid other reviews and stories about a movie until after I’ve written my review but the appearance of Alexander Payne’s name in the writer credits (Sideways, About Schmidt) sent me searching the Internet. I wanted to find some story about a script dispute, about Payne’s original being run through the Happy Gilmore machine to make it broader and less subtle. A Hollywood Reporter article suggests that Payne and Jim Taylor (who worked together on Payne’s best movies, from Election to Sideways) rewrote the film but doesn’t offer any further insight. I’m left to wonder, did blow-up doll jokes and worn gay stereotypes come from them or are they the vestige of whoever got first crack at this mess?

Their revisions might help explain the movie’s unevenness. For all that 80 percent of the movie is crude and hits you like a big dumb blunt object, there are moments that suggest something more nuanced and interesting (in the spirit of Payne’s abortion-focused dark comedy Citizen Ruth). James actually does appear to want to give Larry more than one dimension — especially in a subplot about his son (Cole Morgen), a tween who prefers musical theater to Little League. And while Jessica Biel easily could have been replaced by a cardboard cutout of herself with no real change to the flow of the movie, some of the firehouse guys hint at the potential for having fuller characters. Would that Payne and Taylor — in Citizen Ruth mode — had taken another crack at bringing depth to all this buffoonery. D+

Rated PG-13 for crude sexual content throughout, nudity, language and drug references. Directed by Dennis Dugan and written by Barry Fanaro, Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor (from a treatment by Lew Gallo), I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry is an hour and 50 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Universal Pictures Distribution