Gray Matters (2006)

Gray Matters, a romantic comedy now on DVD, opens with a brother-sister dance number set to “Cheek to Cheek”. Later, the sister, the brother’s wife-to-be, and Gloria Gaynor all sing “I Will Survive” together. And a little later than that, the sister and the wife-to-be share some more Astaire-and-Rogers-inspired hoofing. All of this prompts the question: why isn’t this featherweight wisp of a movie an actual musical?

Don’t get me wrong; real song and dance would not complement any of the witty, pleasurable repartee or lovably neurotic characters that Gray Matters imagines it has. Rather, more singing and dancing would simply decrease the amount of screentime available to the babbling dialogue and dithering characters that Gray Matters actually has. As it is, the musical elements are all too fitting. The last thing needed by a movie already suffering from awkward contrivances is a cheesy singalong of a familiar pop song.

All of it would be easy to ignore if the film didn’t flirt with taboos. At the beginning, the brother, Sam (Tom Cavanagh) and the sister, Gray (Heather Graham), are so close that strangers assume they’re dating (intimations of incest seem a lot sexier when you know the actors aren’t really siblings — and especially when they don’t sound or act like real siblings). Sam then falls for Charlie (Bridget Moynahan; this is one of those movies that’s so transgressive that it dares to use ambiguous proper nouns!), and during their whirlwind courtship, Gray finds herself confronting some new feelings of her own; she and Charlie share a drunken kiss.

At this moment, the film goes from one giggly near-softcore situation to another. But the screenplay doesn’t stop there; after weakly pouring out some blossoming-bisexuality gags (they come pre-milked), the film decides Gray has obviously been gay from the start and tries its hand at empowering coming-out drama. It’s difficult to imagine an audience won over by any of these sections, let alone one that would follow the film through its tour of potential premises; Gray Matters is a fantasy in search of a fantasizer.

These fantasies are unconvincing chiefly because the movie’s idea of portraying fun yet sophisticated New Yorkers involves forcing the actors to talk like a class grade-schoolers: quick, repetitive, and all at the same time. When Gray and Charlie decide to have a slumber party, it seems redundant.

Graham does make a spirited attempt at fast-talking screwball zaniness, but when she enunciates clearly enough to be understood, she’s saddled with dialogue designed solely to illustrate her screenplay-ish personal problem: an inability to make decisions. So we get lots of scenes where she tries to order everything on the menu at once, or talks about drinking coffee, tea, and hot cocoa all mixed together; these may have been fun to brainstorm and catalog on writer-director Sue Kramer’s copy of Final Draft Pro, but they’re not fun to listen to.

To the film’s credit, Gray isn’t “cured” of her indecisiveness in the end — though she is cured of any lingering possibility of bisexuality, one sexual preference even a quasi-sophisticated rom-com would rather keep in the realm of fantasy. Maybe it’s a promising sign that a gay-themed romantic comedy can employ musty chestnut gags like saying “check please” on a bad date, or someone losing her balance when receiving surprising news. Maybe just settling for being a near-musical is this film’s way of mingling with the straights.

The DVD’s lone, minimal special feature pays lip-service to that idea. In a “making-of” that is really just the trailer with some token cast and crew commentaries interspersed, Kramer mentions that she conceived of her film as a dance. If that’s the case, the choice to make it a metaphorical dance has also rendered it a spastic one, with just a few moments of grace.

RATING 2 / 10