Why Johnny Can't Catch
Since at least the 1980s, in the wake of critiques of the homogenizing and presumptive whiteness and middle-classness of mainstream feminism, political movements have had to deal with the fact of differences. This produced increasingly sophisticated understandings of the workings of social power, but also left many activist organizations paralyzed (Queer Nation is, perhaps, the most spectacular example). This was a major downside to so-called “identity politics,” and the challenge for minority politics today is to build coalitions through differences.
Pete Jones’ Outing Riley comes a little late to the game. Still mired in narrowly conceived identity politics, the film insists on the absolute difference that Bobby Riley’s (Jones) gayness makes with regard to his social positioning. As Bobby tells us in an aside at the start of the film, his is going to be “A gay, Chicago, Irish-Catholic story.” Bobby’s regionalism, religion, ethnicity, and sexuality preclude any sort of larger resonance, and draw attention to the film’s rather stereotypical coming out story, focused on familial intolerance and eventual acceptance.
Out only to his sister Maggie (Julie R. Pearl), when both his parents die, Bobby hesitantly decides, at her urging and that of his had-enough-of-the-secrecy boyfriend Andy (Michael McDonald), to come out to his three brothers. Paragons of beer-swilling, womanizing Irish-Catholic manhood, the boys aren’t too thrilled with Bobby’s announcement. They have their own problems, of course. Luke (Nathan Fillion) is a 30-something pothead with twin daughters; Connor (Stoney Westmoreland) spends his nights surfing internet porn, and gripes to his brothers how his wife hasn’t given him a blow-job since they married; and Jack (Dev Kennedy) is a Catholic priest—I guess that’s enough of a problem for anyone, as that’s the extent of his angst.
Jack also harbors the most animosity towards Bobby’s gayness, spouting off repeatedly about his faith and the Church’s “love the sinner, hate the sin” dogma, and telling Bobby he can accept him as gay as long as he doesn’t commit the “sin.” To which Bobby rightly points out, “What’s the point of being gay, then?” The other brothers are a bit more flexible in their worldviews, at least after an initial period of shock and silence. Playing with the children in a park, they imagine about what two men having sex might be like. Connor worries that “This gay gene is heredity,” shortly after Luke teases him because his little boy Johnny can’t catch a football. Later, after they’ve come to grips with Bobby’s sexuality enough to talk to him about it, they ask the question that it seems every straight guy wants to know about a gay man’s sexual practices: “Are you a pitcher or a catcher?” Er, are straight guys really so obsessed with this?
Luke and Connor decide that maybe they should talk to Andy, seeking to demystify the whole thing, or at least make it more “real.” As they repeatedly pose the most predictable questions (“How long have you been gay?”), Andy stops them, and asks whether they know any gay men. They admit they don’t, but gosh darn, they love their brother and if he’s gay, they’ll try to understand and accept it.
This is Outing Riley‘s general message of liberal tolerance: if we knew more about each other, we could all get along. As if it would be impossible that Bobby’s loving family might not be so loving anymore, or that Luke and Connor might very well be resistant to any sort of personal reform. That homophobia might actually be entrenched and perhaps intractable in some communities, families, or individuals.
This last possibility is raised at the end of Outing Riley, and it keeps the film from falling into the clichés of yet another coming out love fest. Father Jack remains conflicted, still proselytizing when he deigns to speak to Bobby. The film ends with another aside by Bobby, under a happy alt-rock soundtrack and images of the Chicago skyline and the “fun” Ferris wheel at Navy Pier. Life, Bobby insists, hasn’t turned out perfectly since coming out to his family, but this is his story and if he wants a happy ending, so be it. To its credit, Outing Riley has the chutzpah to recognize that the coming out norm, while valuable and often vital for visibility and safety, is often a fantasy.