In & Out (1997)

Boy, if nothing else has ever driven it home to me, In & Out sure did: tailoring any work of fiction to a political viewpoint sucks all the life out of it. I should have known before. The dramatic experiences of reading Ernest Hemingway's To Have and Have Not and watching Howard Hawks's To Have and Have Not are like night and day. Hemingway is stiff; Hawks winks, nudges, and still gives you the chills. It's because Hawks just wanted to make an entertaining film with entertainingly real characters, while Hemingway had a whole war plus a stupid, boring stance toward life and a chip on his shoulder. I'll take a pound and a half of Lauren Bacall in a killer business suit over three paragraphs of Hemingway's stultifying "action" any day.

And I'll take almost any try at comedy over In & Out. Sure, it has its moments, but overall, the tone of the film is one of nervousness. You can actually conjure images of one of the most talented screenwriters around, Paul Rudnick (Addams Family Values, Jeffrey), sitting at his laptop thinking, "How far will Hollywood go?" Instead of using that guideline to push the limits, as he might have done to some effect, he has let it keep the film from saying anything much at all and also cut away most of the real drama and humor the situation of the film would seem to suggest are ripe for exploitation.

In case you don't know, the situation of the film is based on the real-life Oscar acceptance speech made by Tom Hanks after his first win, for Philadelphia. In it, he thanked some of his gay teachers by name. The filmmakers of In & Out recognized a great premise when they heard it, you've got to give them that much. Their inspiration was to ask the question of what might happen if a teacher were outed who wasn't out, maybe not even to himself. So we have the story of Howard Brackett (Kevin Kline), outed in a similar way by his former student, Cameron Drake (Matt Dillon) just a few days before Howard's planned marriage to his girlfriend Emily (Joan Cusack). Though Brackett denies being gay, he is finally forced to confront the truth after being dogged by questions from tabloid reporters, including the openly gay Peter Malloy (Tom Selleck).

So Rudnick sits down with a bunch of 3x5's and starts free-associating. "What would be great movie scenes we've never seen before?" And, oh, he has a bunch of ideas. Spoof the Oscars. A Kline-Selleck kiss. Drama at the altar. Bing, bing, bing, the ideas are coming like sausages off the conveyor belt. Unfortunately, because of the way he thinks he has to write the movie (for Hollywood to accept it), he knows he can't get at any truth. He has to skim the surface, go for easy conflicts and situations, and, in the process, he doesn't write a main character.

And that's the main problem. The politics preclude creating a three-dimensional main character, the necessary ingredient for any successful dramatic enterprise, up to and including a broad farce, which is what In & Out wants to be. That's why it fails. Howard Brackett is a cipher. Not a Capra-esque everyman or a comedy-of-errors scapegoat--a cipher. The humor of such a character lies in his being able to deceive himself for so long and then suddenly to be able to "discover" he's gay without hardly even blinking. It's essentially a Jimmy Stewart role, Theodore Honey of No Highway in the Sky or Elwood P. Dowd of Harvey. But the Brackett of the film has no comic depth to be able to pull off this kind of non-transformation transformation, which would trigger the comedy. And it's not Kevin Kline's fault. He has nothing to work with except his physicality, which he uses to full effect. Rudnick just hasn't been willing to let the audience feel Howard's pain, to coin a phrase, and so no one else in the film can respond honestly, either. He thinks it would be too uncomfortable--for Hollywood, for mainstream moviegoers. He's wrong.

There are many things to like about the film, however. In general, the supporting performances are top-knotch. Selleck's likability and magnetic screen presence bring a weight to his character lacking in any of the others. Selleck and Kline's kiss is a wonderful moment all the way around. Joan Cusack steals nearly every scene she is in, especially her inspired breakdown sequence at the wedding. Bob Newhart and Debbie Reynolds are also standouts, as the school principal and Howard's mother, respectively.

All in all, In & Out is a good time at the movies. There are enough laughs to keep you in your seat and there's enough good-heartedness to leaven the timidity, but there's not nearly enough honesty and wit. Watch it, but then go rent Beautiful Thing.

Links for In & Out

Internet Movie Database Entry

Roger Ebert Review


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