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A Small Town's Homophobia

IN & OUT Directed by Frank Oz Starring Kevin Kline, Joan Cusack, Matt Dillon, Tom Selleck, Debbie Reynolds Opens Today


"In and Out," like "The Birdcage," is all about wrapping homosexuality in mainstream trappings. The movie plays it safe by appealing to a public just beginning to grapple with a more visible gay presence, and does so in an entirely predictable fashion that's redeemed by its essential light-heartedness.

Inspired by Tom Hanks' teary-eyed tribute to a gay high school drama teacher upon receiving the Best Actor Oscar for "Philadelphia," "In & Out" explores the comic potential of the impact of such an event on small-town America-in this case, the "great BIG small town" of Greenleaf, Indiana. The twist is that the teacher in question, Howard Brackett (Kevin Kline) refuses to admit he's gay, and what's more, is virtually on the eve of his marriage to a fellow schoolteacher (Joan Cusack). Nonetheless, despite his protestations, he's immediately confronted with throngs of reporters and townsfolk who turn his well-ordered life and his unconscious complacency upside-down.

In the interest of making a comedy with broad appeal, "In & Out" not surprisingly goes for broad comedy almost every time-when an occasional touch of subtlety might have served just as well, if not better. Still, it succeeds in racking up laughs the old American way-from an Oscars ceremony featuring Matt Dillon as the amusingly air-headed movie star (apparently more a parody of Brad Pitt than of Tom Hanks) and a bad Mel Brooks-style spoof of the kind of inflated dramas that usually reap Oscar accolades, to a wedding recalling "Four Weddings and a Funeral" (which, alas, doesn't work to the advantage of "In & Out" in the inevitable comparison), to a generous helping of the usual eccentric small-town types and their various reactions to Howard's abrupt ejection from the closet.

The best asset of "In & Out" is Kline, who strikes the right note as the sweetly befuddled English teacher who doesn't quite know how to react once he passes out of the initial shock and denial phase. He isn't given much of a chance to do any really meaningful soul-searching-but he comes brilliantly into his own in his dance scenes, throwing the "Real men don't dance" dictum gleefully to the winds and proving once again that there's nothing sexier, for straights and gays alike, than a good dancer. Tom Selleck also scores high marks as the smirking, skulking tabloid reporter eager to package Brackett into a juicy "Entertainment Tonight" or "Inside Edition" story; one of the movie's funniest moments, in fact, occurs when Kline turns a dumbfounded gaze on Selleck and says simply, "You are pure television"-at which the latter looks positively (and rather diabolically) delighted.

The rest of the principal cast is chock-full of top-notch comic actors who unfortunately aren't given enough room to expand beyond the realm of the obvious. Cusack's fans will likely enjoy her turn as the ugly-duckling fiancee badly in need of a self-esteem booster (which of course she gets, this being movie comedy land). Debbie Reynolds plays a blander kind of "Mother" more reminiscent of the comic strip "Cathy" than her recent foray with Albert Brooks. Bob Newhart, as the high school principal, manages to keep a completely deadpan expression throughout the entire movie, almost concealing the fact that he isn't given any truly witty lines.

"In & Out" manages to tweak the stereotypical labels of homosexuality without really dislodging them-from limp hand-gestures and crossed legs to extreme neatness of dress and the aforementioned dancing. Its solution isn't to disprove the stereotypes but to make light of them and show that hey, they're no big deal; the whole point is that none of this should be such a big deal, but is made to be. There's no edge, no grit: it's the sanitized, homogenized Hollywood comic vision of a Greenleaf, Indiana, learning to accept gays, if not to be perfectly politically correct about them. "In & Out" isn't particularly subtle or inventive, but it's shrewd enough to be a comedy about homosexuality that won't make most heterosexuals uncomfortable.

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