Ansen on 'Chuck and Larry'

Adam Sandler knows his audience, wants to please his audience … and wants, in his just-one-of-the-guys way, to make them a little bit better than he suspects they are. Thus you have "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry," directed by Dennis Dugan, a broad, sometimes wince-inducing comedy built on what is usually called homosexual panic (shouldn't it be heterosexual panic?). Sandler, who plays Chuck, a Brooklyn fireman and ladies man who has to pretend to be gay (for reasons we'll get to), encourages his audience to laugh at all the usual fag stereotypes while offering up an explicit and heartfelt plea for tolerance and diversity.

Anyone who's followed Sandler's career knows that he's always slid gay-friendly subplots into his comedies, so no one should be surprised that "Chuck and Larry" comes out on the side of the angels. You could also predict, given his penchant for adolescent humor, that the comedy will pander to the lowest common denominator, if that means getting easy laughs out of a sissy kid who's a little too fond of musical comedies—that would be the son of Chuck's best buddy, Larry (Kevin James)—he'll go for it. He'll then make up for it by getting the audience to cheer for the kid when he stomps on the bully who make fun of him for being a pansy. "Chuck and Larry" may not be very artful, but it's certainly adept at having it both ways.

The premise is high concept of a low order. Due to legal technicalities, the widower Larry—a fireman who knows his life is always on the line—can't sign over his pension benefits to his kids unless he remarries, which, being in deep mourning for his late wife, he has no intention of doing. But, since same-sex partnerships are now recognized by the state, he'll call in the big favor Chuck owes him for saving his life, and ask his bud to marry him. What the womanizing Chuck and the chubby widower don't realize is that they'll have to publicly act out their marriage to placate a suspicious investigator (Steve Buschemi) who smells a fraud. The charade leads to predictably farcical, and character-building, results. Faced with blatant homophobia, the macho Chuck gets his back up and begins to question his prejudices, all the while lusting hopelessly after his gorgeous lawyer (Jessica Biehl), who would drop his defense in the fraud case if she knew he was a straight guy pretending to be gay. Chuck and Larry's very public coming out, meanwhile, encourages some surprising members of the firefighting team to bust open the closet doors. The very fact that any of these very masculine men is actually queer is in itself seen as a source of comedy.

If the premise seems farfetched to begin with, the sweat involved in stretching it out to feature length leaves puddles on the screen. The most surprising thing about the screenplay is who wrote it. Barry Fanaro, who originated the script, shares credit with no less than Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor ("Sideways," "About Schmidt"), who were presumably brought in to sensitize and humanize the material. I defy anyone to detect traces of their sensibility. It's hard to imagine that they came up with the protracted shower-room gag about the danger of dropping your soap bar on the floor. (It's scary to think what the script was like before them.) And whose idea was the "yellow face" casting of Rob Schneider as the buck-toothed, cross-eyed Asian who performs Chuck and Larry's wedding service? It's a cartoonish ethnic turn the likes of which hasn't been since since Mickey Rooney's infamous appearance in "Breakfast at Tiffany's." Embarrassing as it is, one has to admit, guiltily, that he's kind of funny. (Schneider doesn't take a credit—make of that what you will.)

"Chuck and Larry" is not a movie I'd ever recommend to my friends—but does that matter? A young admirer of "Happy Gilmore" or "Fifty First Dates" may find the set-up a lot more hilarious than someone who's sat through several decades of gender-bending comedies. Sandler isn't going after the "Brokeback Mountain" crowd, after all, and there is something to be said for a movie that may end up preaching, for a change, to the unconverted. If only the laughs were bigger, smarter and more frequent than they are.