Directed by Rob Williams
Written by Rob Williams
Directed by Douglas Langway
“Most gay men have the emotional maturity of adolescent girls,” states one character from writer-director Rob Williams’ Role/Play, a so-called romantic comedy featured at this year’s Image+Nation film festival. While the audience laughs in recognition of the stereotype that inspires such a line, a similar statement can be made of gay-themed movies, particularly those classified as “romcoms.” I don’t wish to imply that Role/Play and Douglas Langway’s BearCity, another American “You’ll Laugh! You’ll Cry! You’ll See Tons of Male Flesh!” effort, are representative of what the festival had to offer. Rather, I would argue that they are emblematic of the audience’s low standards when faced with the festival’s lighter fare. In the case of both films, the problem does not lie with the subject matter. I do not doubt that there is inherent value in exploring an underrepresented gay subculture (BearCity) or exposing the ironic hypocrisy lurking within a gay community preoccupied with public image as a means of acquiring equal rights (Role/Play). However, for whatever merit they may have, the films unfortunately come wrapped in such formulaic scripts and pedestrian execution that the finished products are, at best, passable date movies, and, at worst, guilty of committing what is an unforgivable sin for any movie, gay or straight: being bland and dull.
“Admitting you like bears is like coming out twice, “says Tyler (Joe Conti), the young, polished, aspiring actor protagonist of BearCity, who looks exactly like the young, polished, aspiring actor protagonist of countless other gay romantic comedies and therefore serves as tour guide to most of the film’s audience. Abandoning his “traditional” gay community obsessed with acquiring (in every sense of the word) Abercrombie and Fitch physiques for a world of body hair and life after 30, Tyler soon discovers that the romantic concerns of bear society do not differ all that greatly from his own. Unfortunately for the audience, this essentially means that not even bears are safe from the same cinematic scenarios that have been dealt with ad nauseam. On one end, there’s the overweight man contemplating gastric bypass surgery, much to the disapproval of his oh-so-saintly lover, and in another corner we have two “husbears” entertaining the possibility of a threesome as a means of spicing up their love life. There are no prizes for guessing that one partner will be less open to the idea than the other, and I see absolutely no need to write “Spoiler Alert” before revealing that said threesome will play out as a humiliating slapstick misadventure that turns out to be just what the couple needed all along. However, these subplots play out significantly better than the principal romantic intrigue between Tyler and Roger (Gerald McCullouch), who is apparently the bear community’s answer to Queer as Folk’s Brian Kinney. To say that the pair has no chemistry is an understatement, and their flirtations are often so cheesy, they come across as parodies of romantic TV commercials. (I guess it’s possible that bowling alleys can be plenty sexy, but this is not the movie that will convince me). But the film’s greatest offense is in its presentation of Tyler’s roommate, a garishly one-dimensional personification of every stereotype Tyler seems determined to evade. The more this grating and ridiculous character shows up onscreen, the more Langway and co-writer Lawrence Farber risk being accused of perceiving non-bears with the same narrow mind his film claims to be free of.
In comparison, Williams’ Role/Play is admittedly a less disingenuous effort. Taking place at a Palm Springs resort, the film traces the romance between recently outed soap opera star Graham Windsor (Steve Callahan) and newly divorced gay marriage activist Trey Reed (Matthew Montgomery). In comparing the plights of his protagonists, Williams’ script makes some thoughtful and intriguing points about the erratic nature of celebrity in the gay community. For instance, Trey’s argument that Graham’s leaked sex tape sets back the gay political agenda turns out to be just as flawed as the media’s judgment of his own divorce as evidence that gays aren’t ready for marriage. However, holding Role/Play back is Williams’ inability to dramatize his own rhetoric. So statically filmed are some of his scenes, that one wonders whether he would be better suited on a stage rather than behind a camera. Apart from a very brief flashback of Graham in bed with his ex-lover, there aren’t any glimpses of the characters’ past lives, thus making it difficult to get a vivid sense of their respective suffering. Of course, flashbacks wouldn’t be necessary if the actors were gifted enough to convey a life’s worth of hurt and self-denial, but I’m afraid that Callahan and Montgomery have rather limited acting chops. While Callahan plays his role with enough of a light touch to exude charm, it would challenge any actor to have chemistry with Montgomery, whose wooden expressions come across as little more than petulant. The stars’ failure to gain credibility as a couple certainly doesn’t help an overly utopic conclusion that hardly justifies the seemingly endless series of breakups and arguments leading up to it. Ultimately, the best thing about the film winds up being any jokes about gay popular culture (It’s a nice touch to have Graham express surprise at Trey being unfamiliar with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? while Trey later laughs at how Brokeback Mountain constitutes Graham’s entire gay DVD collection). Sadly, there aren’t nearly enough zingers to drown out the heavy-handedness of the film’s interminable last third.
While both BearCity and RolePlay both have their mandatory share of nudity and sexuality, there is hardly anything that qualifies as eroticism (and no, I’m not referring to the fact that there’s no frontal nudity in either). In the case of the former, most of the sexual material is played primarily for laughs and hardly interested in exploring what one may actually find alluring about bear coitus. And while Role/Play doesn’t shy away from revealing its stars’ bare backsides, was it really necessary to have the actors naked while thoughtfully discussing the politics of outing and activism? I simply didn’t buy the film’s awkwardly vague suggestion that the characters may simply be “baring their souls”, and instead took the nudity as a sign of Williams’ lack of confidence in the merits of his own script.
But is it a surprise to anyone that these films are of a quality that ranges from bad to mediocre? At the screening of BearCity I attended, it was fairly obvious that nobody in the audience was expecting a night of quality cinema. Rather, it was one of those movies that are significantly more fun to laugh at than laugh with. Or, as more than one audience member observed, when one goes to see a movie such as Role/Play and BearCity (read: an American gay romantic comedy), standards almost automatically drop. But how long will this have to be the case? The best romantic comedies have been those which have attempted to make intelligible the seemingly endless layers of neuroses synonymous with the pursuit of emotional and carnal fulfillment. If, on the dramatic end, American LGBT cinema can produce Brokeback Mountain, Milk, and A Single Man, is it so much to ask for our own Annie Hall as well?
– Jonathan Youster