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The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green quickly brings anyone not familiar with the gay comic strip of the same name up to speed: “Ethan is a man unlucky in love,” states the intro. “Don’t feel sorry for him. It’s his own damn fault. Really.” “Love,” though, is a relative term in George Bamber’s debut film, written by new scripter David Vernon and based on the high jinks in Eric Orner’s strip. And the term “unlucky” doesn’t quite apply, either. But if you can forgive a few—OK, many—gay stereotypes and consider the story to be less about misfortune in commitment than simply adventures in dating, the celluloid portrayal of Ethan’s allegedly fab-free lifestyle is rather funny and, well, loafer-light.
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In fact, we first meet the central character (Daniel Letterle) in a serendipitous moment: Holding an apple and looking skyward as he ponders his book, Finding the Boyfriend Within, in a park, Ethan is knocked out by an errant tennis ball. A recently divorced and outed baseball player, Kyle (Diego Serrano), gives him mouth-to-mouth, and it’s lust at first tongue. Soon Kyle has penned an autobiography, with a dedication to Ethan—“You make my every day a double-header”—that leads the men at his book reading to initially go “awww” but then turn to scowl at Kyle’s pretty lover. In the meantime, Ethan’s roommate and ex, Leo (David Monahan), is trying to tell Ethan that he’s selling the house, and at an after-reading party, Ethan meets the egotistic force field that is Punch (Dean Shelton), a fast-talking, baby-faced 19-year-old who immediately reveals that his likes are “dick, dick, and more dick.” Punch happens to work with the world’s worst real-estate agent, Sunny Deal (Rebecca Lowman), a snarling, psychotic blonde guaranteed to keep Leo’s house on the market for a lifetime. Ethan Green purports to be a message movie, but that’s not a concept that Vernon handles very well. That tennis ball soon becomes metaphorical, pounding the audience over the head with the sentiment “Ethan sabotages good relationships!” But until the groaner of a closing line—something about games, winning by refusing to play, etc.—the one-note motif is easy enough to stomach, divvied evenly among the characters, who lecture their friend in bites. Unfortunately, most of Ethan’s compatriots are pretty one-note, as well. There’s Charlotte (Shanola Hampton), another roommate who was recently dumped by her girlfriend and has replaced all the pictures of her ex with images of her cat. Kyle and Leo are more story propellers than personalities. And Ethan’s mom (Meredith Baxter) is just plain bizarre: Though a planner of gay and lesbian weddings, she seems a little too accepting of her son’s lifestyle, chatting easily about his porn collection and even saying hello during a webcam surf that happens to connect to another of Ethan’s exes, who for some reason lives with her.
So what saves the comic’s big-screen transformation from ending up a costly mistake? Letterle, mainly, with great support from Shelton and also Joel Brooks and Richard Riehle, who figuratively and literally add color as the Hat Sisters, two eye-rolling, gossipy old queens whose fashion sense is a tacky take on Sunday best. Shelton’s projectile delivery of the one-liners Vernon peppers his script with ensures that Punch comes off not as an insufferably smug and deluded kid but as a realistically ridiculous narcissist, constantly talking about how gorgeous he is, aggressively pursuing Ethan—in one scene tearing open his shirt twice and then dropping his pants in a matter of minutes—and nonchalantly brushing off Ethan’s rejections. But it’s Letterle, who’s in every scene, who carries the movie with both his physical comedy and his deft timing. Whether taking gentle pratfalls with just the right amount of giggle-inducing obviousness (he’s also a professional dancer) or reacting to lunacy around him with merely a slight start or an eyebrow-raising, Letterle’s Ethan is neither forcefully fruity nor sitcom-y broad—and in a story that not-so-smoothly piles on one romantic setback after another, that’s pretty fabulous.
No one may want to make an honest man out of Ethan, but the saying “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” ironically doesn’t apply at all in Barnyard: The Original Party Animals. In writer-director Steve Oedekerk’s animated feature, cows get married. And their babies coo and walk on two legs immediately after birth. Also, the male cows have udders. In other words, after seeing Barnyard, your children—who, no matter how young, probably already understand that cows go “Moo” and not “My husband was killed in a storm”—might have to be rewired by a science class.
Then again, Oedekerk’s the guy responsible for assaulting audiences with 2002’s Kung Pow: Enter the Fist, so compared to a live-action, three-boobed woman, maybe these modifications aren’t so irritating. And neither is the movie itself, exactly. Boring is a much better description of it. The premise is a thin one: When a farmer (Fred Tatasciore) is away, his animals play…I mean, “party.” They craft boogie boards for out-of-control rides down hills. They use cell phones to buy “gray market” items from underground gophers (get it?). And at night, they throw wild barn-burners, drinking, dancing, and college-party chaos the rewards for their daily placidity. It’s all spearheaded by the bovine Otis (Kevin James), much to the chagrin of his father, Ben (Sam Elliott), who takes the responsibilities for organizing meetings and watching over the henhouse—passing the time by singing “I Won’t Back Down”—so coyotes don’t snack on the birds at night.
The time comes, however, for Otis to grow up and become a leader himself, and anyone who’s seen a movie before knows the rest. The result is a swell-enough message for kids (though promoting crazee misbehavior when an authority figure’s back is turned perhaps isn’t the best idea), and they’ll likely find the sight of animals goofing around pretty amusing for a while. But the parties are shown over, and over, and over again, and when the movie goes Bambi, the maudlin mourning scenes seem to last forever. Oedekerk isn’t the most original humorist, either, blatantly modeling a human character on South Park’s Cartman, right down to bits of dialogue.
To be fair, there are a few funny bits here and there: a frail dog on crutches who’s about to turn a mere 13; a nosy, shrill neighbor (Maria Bamford) who’s constantly calling the police about the seemingly nogoodnik farmer; a Cops sendup when a few of the animals seek revenge on a cow-tipper. Even so, compared to recently released animated features The Ant Bully and Monster House, Barnyard is a disappointment. Then again, a movie in which a singing cow—even a male one with bodacious udders—introduces kids to Tom Petty can’t be all bad.CP