There's a wide chasm between what constituted "acceptable" comedy in 2007 and what passes in 2017, and an even wider chasm exists between the state of LGBTQ rights then and now. In 2007, mainstream transgender visibility was mostly limited to films like Boys Don't Cry and TransAmerica; Don't Ask, Don't Tell was still in effect; and Massachusetts was the only state that had legalized same-sex marriage. The advances we've seen over the past ten years can make it feel like the LGBTQ community has gained acceptance at a breakneck pace, but it's important to remember that the existence of LGBTQ people hasn't changed—it's the language we use to describe them.
But if used as a bellwether for what flew just ten years ago, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, ten years old this July, is a good reminder of exactly how far we've come. The comedy—in which Adam Sandler and Kevin James lead as Boston firemen who construct a sham marriage for insurance reasons—is downright hard to sit through. It's an Adam Sandler film through and through, in spite of screenwriting credits from Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor (whose script was given a heavy, uncredited Sandler "polish," prompting Payne to distance himself from the project). Racist jokes abound, most egregiously with Rob Schneider's performance as a Chinese wedding minister; Adam Sandler objectifies and dehumanizes nearly every woman who appears in the film; the plot itself is wall-to-wall gay panic humor. It's a time capsule from a not-too-distant American past—one liberals likely thought they'd buried until last November.
The film finds Kevin James as a widowed, single dad and Sandler as his best friend. After a near-death experience, James realizes just how important it is for his kids to be taken care of should anything happen to him. After discovering his children can't be named as beneficiaries on a life insurance policy unless he's married, he marries Sandler. As it's a same-sex marriage, the arrangement requires investigators to make sure that what James and Sandler are doing isn't happening. So they enlist a lawyer (Jessica Biel), who has woefully little to do other than provide exposition and make Sandler's horndog misogyny even more evident.
The script calls for as many lazy gay jokes as possible as the two try to cultivate a "gay life" together, with James becoming dismayed watching his son express interest in auditioning for Pippin, while the two buy a slew of "gay" things to affirm their relationship (Q-Tips for some reason, alongside copies of Brokeback Mountain, Liza Live, Barry Manilow II, The Best of the Village People, and Wham!'s Make it Big). They attend a gay party that Sandler dubs "homopalooza," which serves to pack as many quick jabs as possible into a few minutes—the two are offered an apple martini; James's eyes bug when he sees condoms in the bathroom; an impromptu dance-off prompts Sandler to remark "gay guys know how to dance good, it's like the law or some shit." And that's just the first half.
If the film was panned upon its original release, its reception today would spark a maelstrom of fury. Even marginally positive comments from critics make the film feel like more of a relic. Scott Tobias at the AV Club opined at the time that the film "works overtime to be an equal opportunity offender, presenting flaming queers as funny (and super-straight men being mistaken for gay as even funnier), but also mocking homophobic anxieties over soap-dropping in the shower or leaving childcare to two daddies." "Many of the gags in I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry are a little too 'Some of my best friends are gay' to be particularly smart," wrote Stephanie Zacharek in Salon. And Ben Walters observed in Time Out New York, "the film is actually a paean to male friendship with a severe case of gay panic: its leads can declare their love for one another but the thought of a kiss inspires revulsion."
Yet the film had more outright supporters, including Nathan Lee at the Village Voice ("I have never heard the cause of gay equality more delectably phrased than as 'the right to put whatever you want up your ass'") and Wesley Morris at The Boston Globe ("The movie is often stupid. But coming from an industry institutionally terrified of being honest about its own sexuality, it feels brave, going a step further than 'not that there's anything wrong with that'"). Even the entertainment media director of LGBTQ media watchdog GLAAD thought it was OK.
The film switches gears at its midpoint, as if it has the sudden epiphany that it should challenge Sandler and James' homophobia. Sandler punches a religious activist in the face after he calls him a faggot. James realizes that it's fine his son might be gay. And Ving Rhames, playing a fellow firefighter defined by little other than his gruff machismo, comes out as gay in a legitimately touching moment. The film's last act sees James and Sandler defend their marriage in court. Court room as soap box has long been a staple of morality films, but it's an admittedly odd one to find in an Adam Sandler movie.
The film's breezy change in direction makes its critiques of homophobia spineless. It never really makes up its mind about what's offensive, other than that you shouldn't say the word "faggot." It's hard to shake its "I'm straight but now I'm woke" feeling, and it's strange to read older reviews writing about the film as if "it's better than nothing." Sure, the prospect of a mainstream comedy that does its best to suggest that homophobia sucks and male friendship is good is nice. But one can't help but wish literally anyone other than Adam Sandler had taken up that mantle, and it's mind-boggling to think any critics thought this film was fine, even in 2007.
The fascinating (and disheartening) thing about a film like Chuck & Larry is that it wants to exist in the space between what's tasteful and distasteful, good and bad; it wants to promote tolerance while retaining the ability to make intolerant jokes. It doesn't see a problem with the fact that gay people exist, but it sees them, and the world, through a straight lens—in the film's imagination, gay sex is gross, gender roles are firm, and femme things (like singing and dancing) are frivolous. Okay, but frivolous. And within that straight imagination, sure, gay people can get married. They should be like us, but they're definitely not like us, the film implies.
In some ways, despite all the progress we've made, LGBTQ people are still stuck in that liminal space. It's what Mark Harris in Film Comment calls "post-visibility", the idea that in many films and TV shows, LGBTQ characters are there, sort of, but their identity is so "not a big deal" that it barely feels like a part of their being at all.
Yes, it's a big deal when a piece of culture that's queer-focused does its job and perhaps—and with Chuck & Larry, that's a big "perhaps"—makes people less hateful. But this film was released well after the advent of widespread internet access, making it all the more inexcusable. It's not that Chuck & Larry has aged so poorly because of its crude humor, or because our society is less tolerant of work that's offensive to marginalized communities, but precisely because the meek efforts Chuck & Larry make in the name of "tolerance" now seem so transparent and one-dimensional. The idea that Adam Sandler even continues to have a career is insulting (and he, in turn, continues to insult). One shudders to think of the world that would have resulted had Sandler's vision of LGBTQ "progress" come to fruition; one in which queer people are merely tolerated, and one in which our sexuality is sidelined in that way—just as it was by Don't Ask, Don't Tell or years of dehumanizing arguments made against the right of same-sex couples to marry. If anything, this film serves to remind us that it's been ten long years of gains won and our right to exist in public brutally fought for. No thanks to Chuck, Larry, Sandler, James or the Hollywood industrial complex that continues to prop them up.
Follow Kyle Turner on Twitter.