I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry

The two things that teenage boys and underdeveloped grown men are most terrified of are women and homosexuality. “I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry” plays on those fears so well that you’d think the movie had been made by actual 15-year-olds.

Adolescent boys and adult men who haven’t really grown up yet — the Adam Sandler target audience, you’ll note — love girls but don’t understand them. So they call them “whores” and “bitches” and do what they can to control them, to make them more manageable, to assert their dominance over the gender that they secretly fear is dominating THEM. They make movies like “I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry,” where every single female character except for one is slutty, desperate, stupid, ugly, or some combination of those. Even the lady doctor who insists that she be treated with respect ends up tied to Chuck’s bed anyway. Why? Because no matter how much they protest, all women (or so goes the thinking) really just want to get laid.

The fear of homosexuality, meanwhile, doesn’t necessarily mean that men are afraid of being gay so much as that they’re afraid of the fact that gays exist. Like women, gays are a group of people that straight men simply don’t understand. Gays aren’t attracted to women; women are all straight men think about. That’s a very basic, fundamental inability to relate to one another. And when men don’t understand or relate to someone, they become hostile. They fall back on immature attitudes and dumb jokes about San Francisco, or the Village People, or not dropping the soap.

What’s surprising about “Chuck & Larry,” in which Adam Sandler and Kevin James play straight firefighters who get married in order to secure pension benefits, is that while the fear of women is constantly on display, the fear of gays is turned into a teaching moment. You think you’re in for two hours of meathead gay jokes, and then the movie gets all serious and preachy instead, going out of its way to present a message of tolerance and acceptance. Sandler actually faces the camera — well, he’s facing a room full of people, but it looks like he’s talking to us — and tells us not to use the word “faggot” anymore. “It’s like ‘kike’ for me,” he says, in character as a Jewish man, though perhaps speaking for himself, too.

This is sure to confuse many of Sandler’s most ardent fans. They came to “Chuck & Larry” in the hopes of seeing some broad, underdeveloped stereotype-based jokes and general dopey homophobia, and then instead they get lectured on why that type of thing is wrong. “Wait, you mean we’re NOT supposed to make fun of them? Aw, c’mon, Adam! Don’t be a sellout!”

I admit to being relieved that the film isn’t as toolish as I thought it was going to be, but I’m disappointed that it’s not particularly funny, either.

There are three ways this could have gone:

1) They could have employed taboo, politically incorrect gay-baiting humor, the kind that makes you laugh even though you know it shouldn’t. Perhaps they could have done it ironically, the way Sarah Silverman and Borat and “South Park” do. If you make the stereotypes broad enough, it can work as a PARODY of the stereotype — in effect mocking the stereotype while indulging in it. You get to have your cake and eat it too.

2) They could have done a sophisticated comedy in which two ordinary straight men come to appreciate the gay world a little better, while earning laughs at the expense of both gays and straights along the way.

3) They could have done that second option, only in a dimwitted, not-very-funny kind of way that becomes too strident and heavy-handed as it tries to get its tolerance message across.

It’s the third choice that they went with here. We shouldn’t be surprised, considering it’s Sandler’s usual band of misfits involved, including regular director Dennis Dugan, with cameos by Rob Schneider and David Spade. The script was originally written by Barry Fanaro (“Kingpin,” “Men in Black II,” “The Crew”), and then Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor — the duo behind “About Schmidt,” “Election,” and “Sideways,” all savvy, funny movies — were brought in to do rewrites. Most of what they added did not make the final cut. In fact, it’s apparent from watching it which parts came from which writers. The idiotic scene where Larry is embarrassed to receive an inflatable sex doll in the mail — already inflated and wrapped in form-fitting brown paper — is surely the work of someone who isn’t actually funny.

The result is an uneven mix, to say the least. It has its messages about tolerance and acceptance alongside the expected male-fantasy wish-fulfillment stuff. For example, average-looking Adam Sandler sleeps with an endless parade of hot, accommodating women, which makes him a hero and a role model for fans of his movies. In another scene, a gorgeous woman, thinking Chuck (Sandler) is gay, invites him to squeeze her breasts. Subsequently, she wants to know how Chuck romances Larry. “How do you turn him on?” she asks. “Try it on me!” Whether or not any of this is plausible is beside the point. The point is to live vicariously through our hero’s conquests.

Chuck is a horndog bachelor whose best friend and firefighter partner, Larry (James), is a widower with two young children. Larry’s wife died a few years ago, and he has since let his pension paperwork lapse. He wants to change the beneficiary from his dead wife to his children, but the bureaucrats tell him the change will take months. Larry can’t wait, though. He’s a firefighter! He could die tomorrow! What would happen to his children?!

I’m pretty sure that in a situation like that, where a policy’s beneficiary was someone who is dead now, the money would go either to that person’s next of kin, or to the policy-holder’s next of kin. Either way, Larry’s kids get the money. And I’m not sure why, rather than waiting a few months for the paperwork to be processed, Larry decides he should marry Chuck and make HIM the beneficiary, comfortable in the knowledge that if he (Larry) dies, Chuck will take care of his children for him. In the time it takes to get married and convince the city of New York that their domestic partnership is legit and not just some scam … well, wouldn’t the paperwork naming Larry’s kids as beneficiaries have gone through in that time? I’m just sayin’.

If we get past the illogical whys and wherefores of it, we can still accept the basic comedy premise of two straight guys pretending to be gay in order to obtain legal benefits. There is potential in that — a 2004 Australian film called “Strange Bedfellows” did it — and the film does get a few legitimate laughs from Chuck and Larry’s cluelessness about how, exactly, to convince people they’re “gay.” They aren’t hateful, these two; they just have no idea how gay people actually think, act, or talk.

To fool the officious city inspector (Steve Buscemi) who’s been pawing through their garbage cans looking for evidence of heterosexuality, they buy a bunch of products that they think scream “gay” to plant in the trash. What goes in? Q-Tips, K-Y Jelly, and a songbook of showtunes. They almost buy a box of tampons before they realize they’re getting carried away.

James and Sandler, both of whom have extensive backgrounds in sketch and sitcom-style humor, are at their best in a scene where a different city official makes a surprise visit to Larry’s house. Observing that he was once married to a woman, Larry says he realized he would never love anyone as much as he loved her — “and that’s when I boarded the dude train.” Chuck, meanwhile, just keeps saying the word “gay,” throwing it in almost randomly. Their befuddlement is the stuff that working-class comedy is made of.

But then again, the movie trots out so many obvious, simple-minded jokes as to make one weary. Larry fears his young son (Cole Morgen), fond of singing and dancing but not sports, might turn out to be gay — a trope already exploited on so many sitcoms that it is old news now. Meanwhile, Chuck has the hots for the lawyer (Jessica Biel) who’s representing their case against the city, and uses the fact that she thinks he’s gay as an excuse to get close to her — another worn-out comedy device. The guys in Chuck and Larry’s firehouse respond coldly at first, except for the one who takes the opportunity to come out of the closet himself. Which one do you think it will be? If you guessed the one who’s meanest, biggest, butchest, and the most intimidating — which means it will be “funniest” when he suddenly starts prancing around effeminately (’cause, you know, that’s how gay people act) — you win!

There was potential in all of this; predictably, Sandler’s crew have botched it. What’s not so predictable is how, despite its occasional bursts of idiocy (especially in the first half-hour), the film eventually comes off as a harmless, modestly entertaining, not-terribly-stupid comedy. Sure, it’s not very funny, but hey, you can’t have everything. At this point in Sandler’s career, I’ll settle for not-terribly-stupid.

C+ (1 hr., 55 min.; PG-13, some locker room nudity, a lot of vulgarity and innuendo, scattered profanity.)