IN & OUT is certainly aptly titled: What was once "in" as being representative of gay cinema is now decidedly "out." When it first came out (so to speak) it seemed so bright and fresh and funny and original -- and now it just seems so, well, lame.
As one of the first mainstream films to deal with homosexual themes and become a box office success in the process, IN & OUT was blessed with its uniqueness. It was good-natured, well-intentioned, non-threatening and seemingly politically correct, yet old-fashioned in a Capraesque sort of way. What's not to like? But as gay slowly, but assuredly, became mainstream, sissy stereotyping of gay characters, while certainly still with us, ceased to be the only option for discriminating moviegoers. Thus, there is a backlash; it even became a point of contention in another gay movie. In ALL OVER THE GUY, one gay man saw it as an amusing comedy romp, while his blind date saw it as a homophobic insult. A positive story about coming out strikes some as a phony tale of a cowardly, self-hating homosexual unwillingly being forced out of the closet.
Like its TV counterpart, "Will & Grace," IN & OUT took anti-gay attitudes and twisted them around so that the butt of the jokes instead became the source. Stereotypes were mocked by the very people who were demeaned by them and in the process the insult was possibly neutralized. In theory, for instance, having a gay man suggesting that a fondness for Barbra Streisand is a sign of homosexuality should somehow show just how ridiculous such an assumption is. And that might be true, if done once. But resorting to the Streisand joke again, and again, and again, and again, doesn't negate the stereotype, but confirms it, again and again and again.
Mirroring, very loosely, Tom Hanks' very public outing of his high school drama teacher at the 1993 Oscars, the film gives us Kevin Kline as a mild-mannered, small-town high school teacher whose life -- and impending marital plans -- are thrown into chaos when a former student outs him while accepting an Academy Award. The intended compliment inspires nationwide interest and small-town scrutiny. Problem is that Kline's Howard Brackett denies being gay to everyone, especially his soon-to-be bride (Joan Cusack). This could have made for a semi-serious slice-of-life comedy of social mores, and sometimes it seems to strive for that. But the filmmakers are as ambivalent about the point of their film as Howard is about his sexuality. The film never finds a consistent tone and never really tries to; it is farcical one minute, broadly satirical the next and then desperately bittersweet.
The film at first seems to be trying to convince us that, despite all the circumstantial evidence, the persnickety Howard really isn't gay. And Kline seems to be playing the part just that way. Until finally he admits he is gay, but just didn't know it. Huh? It's as if he has been persuaded to turn gay against his will just to fit in with a preconceived image. Plus, his coming out is more like an admission of guilt than a pronouncement of pride, let alone acceptance.
The filmmakers seem to want it both ways; to boldly denounce the stereotypes as being unfair and then (nudge-nudge, wink-wink) gleefully snickering in admission that they are all oh-so true. It's pretty much the same message being served up by "Will & Grace" "Queer as Folk" and "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and other such pop culture sell outs. It is like confronting the homophobe by first admitting that he is absolutely right about everything. The grain of truth within the stereotype becomes the undisputed universal reality.
Even granting the film a benefit of the doubt that its intentions are benign, there is this gnawing sense of hypocrisy. Just before the rousing, if predictable, "Macho Man" finale, one of Howard's students (Shawn Hatosy) shows his support for his beleaguered teacher by coming out at the high school graduation. What seems to be a remarkable act of moral courage is subverted when, in Spartacus style, everyone in the auditorium also announces "I am gay!" It is supposed to be a Capraesque moment of gutsy small-town loyalty, but it rings utterly false. And worse, it demeans the young man's brave act, clouding whether his pronouncement is even true or merely a noble gesture. A film about coming out trivializes that very act.
Then the film ends with a celebration of the traditional heterosexual wedding, as if to tell the straight audience "Don't worry. People like Howard are harmless and no threat to your lifestyle." Again, huh? Howard and his problems seem to blend into the crowd, which may be the point of the story: "Gay's okay, as long as it doesn't get in the way." Yet, even realizing just how shallow and dishonest the film is, it still manages to be, well, funny, especially in its more ridiculous moments. The mock Academy Awards show and Kline taking a lesson on how to be masculine make the film worth watching. It is what it wants to be, a harmless sitcom with only the vaguest connection with the real world. Cusack's over the top performance is grating, but the rest of the cast is just fine, led nicely by the always charming Kline. And kudos has to go to card-carrying Republican and NRA member Tom Selleck for his wonderful stereotype-busting performance: he plays a gay character who is not a gay caricature. Something the rest of the film should have emulated.