“Straight-Jacket” is not to be confused with “The Jacket,” which is about a man who can see the future when he wears a certain straitjacket. “Straight-Jacket,” on the other hand, is a pun title, about a hunky Hollywood actor in the 1950s who must hide his homosexuality by marrying a woman, in effect putting himself into a straight-jacket. Get it?!
Oh, the movie sure hopes you do. If double-entendre and vaudeville-style setups and punchlines aren’t your thing, then “Straight-Jacket” is not the broad, campy farce for you. Written and directed by Richard Day, it is a vast improvement over his last effort, “Girls Will be Girls,” a drag-queen comedy that kept repeating its one joke to the point of tedium. “Straight-Jacket,” on the other hand, is snappy and fast-paced, featuring several funny characters and an often frenzied verbal interaction between them.
It is the 1950s, at a time when America is afraid of Communists, Hollywood is afraid of Joe McCarthy, and everyone is afraid of homosexuals. One of Tinseltown’s leadingest of leading men in Guy Stone (perfectly played with Troy McClure-ish denseness by Matt Letscher), a chiseled chunk of matinee-idol arrogance, smiles and shallowness. Still, he appreciates his public. “I always say, without my fans I’d be no better than they are,” he tells one admirer.
Guy is as gay as a French horn, a fact he keeps hidden from the world for reasons that, in 1950s Hollywood, are obvious. He is absurdly promiscuous, though, bringing one meaningless fling after another back to his luxurious Hollywood Hills mansion. This lifestyle garners withering scorn from his effeminate Southern butler Victor (Michael Emerson) and cautions from his closeted-lesbian agent Jerry (Veronica Cartwright) and cigar-chomping SRO Pictures studio head Saul (Victor Raider-Wexler). Still, as long as he keeps a lid on it, there’s no harm done to his career.
His secret finally threatens to come to light, though, when he is photographed during a bust at a local gay bar. To do damage control — and to ensure he can still be chosen to play Ben-Hur in the upcoming epic — Jerry and Saul talk him into marrying a woman. What woman would go along with such a sham? No woman, of course. So they choose someone dumb enough not to know it’s a sham — Sally (Carrie Preston), Saul’s sweet, blond secretary who has adored Guy Stone for as long as she can remember. Soon they are married and on the magazines covers, being touted as America’s Sweethearts, while at home Guy is horrified that Sally has redecorated his house with furniture from — gasp! — Sears. (“I’ve tried reasoning with her, but the woman is impervious to droll remarks,” Victor says.) Even worse, she wants to SLEEP with Guy. Like, have sex with him, you know?
The whole charade is reprehensible, of course, and Guy is a jerk, so it’s good that this is a farce where people aren’t meant to be taken seriously — especially because, before you know it, Guy starts cheating on Sally. He falls in love with Rick Foster (Adam Greer), a left-leaning novelist whose pro-union book “Blood Mine” is being made into a film and who has been called back in to revise the screenplay, to make the thing seem less Communist and more rah-rah-patriotic. (The new title: “America Works!”)
Though these characters are intentionally two-dimensional — the right approach for a frothy comedy like this — Rick is just layered enough that I don’t believe he’d help a man cheat on his wife. He has stronger principles than that. But, without it, we don’t have a movie, so OK.
Sally must eventually find out she’s been a pawn in a publicity stunt, of course, and that will be sad for her, but it is not the film’s focus. Instead, we shift from social satire to social importance, as the film starts tackling issues of homophobia, and drawing parallels between McCarthy’s hunt for Communists and America’s hunt for homosexuals. In either case, the film says, people should be allowed to live as they please and not have to worry about being “outed” if they don’t want to be. Probably about 51 percent of the country disagrees with that, but this movie isn’t for them anyway.
The problem is that the film doesn’t really work as a political statement. As satire, it is often deliciously barbed and catty, the jokes flying fast and furious, every role played with the right level of kitschy comic enthusiasm … but when it tries to make its points seriously, it immediately loses me. Put the red nose back on and keep dancing, clown. That’s what we’re paying you for.
B- (1 hr., 35 min.; )