In & Out

(Frank Oz, USA, 1997)


This is the kind of film that either utterly charms people or sends them away insane with anger. It is among Hollywood’s attempts at a feel good comedy about gay identity. That means it emphasises softly humanist values like tolerance, compassion and all-round pleasantness, while downplaying anything that smacks of sexual, cultural or political transgression.

I was charmed. The script, very cleverly devised by Paul Rudnick, takes its good time working up to its main theme. It opens with Howard (Kevin Kline), a literature teacher in a small country town, preparing to marry Emily (Joan Cusack). They have delayed the big day for three years, and their relationship has remained platonic all that time.

The only upset to the marriage plan comes when Howard’s ex-student Cameron (Matt Dillon) accepts his Best Actor Oscar on TV and thanks his old teacher – casually outing him as gay in the process. This triggers a marvellous flurry of scenes detailing the manifold social embarrassments, evasions and crises that beset everyone in Howard’s life – especially his mother (Debbie Reynolds) and father (Wilford Brimley).

Beyond handling the damage control with fiancée, friends and the intrusive media (as represented by television journalist Tom Selleck), Howard finds himself troubled by introspective thoughts. Why would anyone think he’s gay? His students bluntly tell him why: he’s smart, tasteful, well-groomed, single, and has a passion for Barbra Streisand.

Howard rightly scoffs at such reductive stereotyping. But the more he tries to affirm his masculinity – particularly with the aid of a hilarious self-help tape – the more he is led to question it.

The further surprises in store in this plot are best left for the viewer to discover. Director Frank Oz leaves little doubt that his film is essentially aimed as a primer for a heterosexual audience: like a television sitcom, it carefully balances the mild thrill and scandal of its revelations with a heavy, reassuring dose of old-fashioned sentiment.

The infamous final line of My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) – “there may not be marriage, there may not be sex, but by God there’ll be dancing!” – largely fits this film, too. But In & Out is a more artful and confident entertainment than P. J. Hogan’s effort – holding some reward in store for almost all of its characters, even those (like Emily) who suffer along the way. With its abundant wit, flair and life-affirming energy, this is a terrific movie for the festive season.

MORE Oz: Bowfinger, The Indian in the Cupboard, The Score, The Stepford Wives

MORE gay comedies for straights: Connie and Carla, To Wong Foo, Strange Bedfellows, Three to Tango

© Adrian Martin December 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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