Nothing is worse than pretending you’re something you’re not.
— Duncan (Ving Rhames)
Ving Rhames gets it in a way that Adam Sandler never will. In the mostly dreadful I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, Rhames plays Duncan, introduced in an early scene as a huge, scary axe-wielding badass, just transferred to the Brooklyn firehouse where Chuck (Sandler) and his best buddy Larry (Kevin James) also happen to be employed. Riding to a fire aboard their big red truck, Duncan doesn’t so much talk as grunt, and when the men confront a door at the fire scene that won’t open, he duly kicks it in. His fellow firemen stand back, awed.
Ving Rhames gets that Duncan can be gay, and not have to be a fulltime “flamer,” in the film’s parlance. True, his self-outing involves a ballsy performance of “I’m Every Woman” in the communal shower, intimidating nakedness available for all to see. But Rhames plays all aspects of this character with equal vehemence and charm. Here he is equal parts Holiday Heart and Melvin from Baby Boy, utterly assured in his own skin and in no need of stereotypes to hide behind.
By contrast, consider Sandler’s shuffle concerning even the performance of “gayness.” The film’s premise is not so unlike most every other Sandler film, in that it involves the inexorable manchild coming to faux terms with adult concepts, like commitment and tolerance. Here, womanizer Chuck and single dad Larry are unlikely best friends: the former brings home entire squads of Asian massage parlor girls while the latter is so insistently undone by his wife’s death that he’s not made his children the new beneficiaries of his insurance policy. Once their best-friendsness is established in their joint rescue of a morbidly obese fire victim unable to get out of bed (involving entirely banal crotches in faces and fart jokes), Larry convinces Chuck to help him out of his insurance jam by agreeing to be his domestic partner — in name only, of course.
The scam is plainly outrageous, for the film never wants you to doubt for a second that they are anything but hetero. And so their pretense, put on for an odious and rightly suspicious city investigator tediously named Fitzer (Steve Buscemi), consists of straight ideas about gayness, stupid straight ideas at that. Because you are supposed to believe that Chuck is irresistible to ladies (when did Sandler start playing the hunk in his own movies, one with a preference for Phat Farm and Under Armour?), he’s emphatically had no traffic with “homos.” His gay self loves Boy George, climbing the rope in gym class, and “balls and wieners all the way.” (To be fair, his hetero machismo is equally clichéd, indicated by his much-displayed fondness for “moon balloons,” “bodacious bama-mamas,” and cigars.)
Chuck’s gay self is misapprehended by several observers — including his new crush and lawyer in the insurance investigation, Alex (Jessica Biel) — as the “girl” in his partnership with Larry. This genderfuck idea is evidently unnerving (aside from hating the idea of being “the girl” in sex, when Larry thinks they can make “gay garbage” by including tampons, Chuck is horrified, drawing the line between being gay and transsexual), but he tolerates it because it allows him to play Tootsie, or rather, best girlfriend, with Alex.
If misogyny needn’t be part of the gay-tolerance project, neither, apparently, does classism (there’s a filthy homeless man bit that drags on for some time) nor abject racism. Informed that getting married in Canada would look good for the inspector, Chuck and Larry drive up to Niagara Falls for a ceremony with Rob Schneider, who never fails to deliver the most offensive uncredited cameo in each of Sandler’s films. This time, he plays an “Asian” Justice of the Peace, complete with bad accent (he asks the boys to exchange “lings”) and egregious teeth, as if the prolonged cross-cultural discussion of Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi, et. al., never happened.
While it would be easy to add this cliché to the list of concepts that Sandler and company will never get, the film is vexing in its ostensible “message” concerning male-on-male friendship and, in the alternative Sandlerian universe perhaps, tolerance. The primary vehicles for Chuck’s semi-conversion are Alex, of course, because she has a broadly gay brother, Kevin (Nick Swardson), introduced as a fairy at a costume party (enough said), and Eric (Cole Morgan), Larry’s tap-dancing, glitter-loving son. Though his dad worries that little Eric is headed for tragedy and disappointment and less-than-manhood, Chuck repeatedly names manly men who sang and danced, like Sinatra.
Since Eric will apparently be fine whether his dad notices him or not (as he seems not to have since the wife died), the emotional focus, such as it is, remains fixed on Chuck and Larry’s journey to some semblance of maturity. This is punctuated by a series of outings, first as gay. The other firemen’s fearful bigotry is set against C&L’s insta-acceptance of their new gay friends, mainly because Chuck wants to be right with Alex. He’s also moved when he sees a lesbian crying when a fundamentalist protestor outside their party calls them all “faggots.” Suddenly seeing here that saying “faggot” is mean, Chuck does the righteous thing and punches out the offender, much to the delight of the new gay friends who, apparently, wouldn’t dream of taking a similar approach because, you know, they’re all “girls.” They’ve been rescued by their manly-girlish fireman.
No surprise, as soon as Chuck and Larry become spokesmodels for gayness, loved by their seeming peers, they’re outed again, as fakes. Because you know they’re not queer, you don’t share the firemen’s anxiety or Alex’s outrage at being duped. (The film skips the firemen’s existential meltdown on realizing they can’t read other men at all.) Not to worry for the gay folks though. Deciding after the straight outing a councilman played by Richard Chamberlain, of all people, deems Chuck and Larry appropriate gay cause spokesmodels after all. Because, you know, they’ve learned that saying “faggot” is mean. This is what passes for enlightenment in the Sandlerian universe.