Fledgling art photographer Billy (Sean P. Hayes) lacks a true boyfriend and is therefore unhappy. How unhappy? Not very, it turns out. After all, the Polaroid artist is not merely the protagonist of Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss, but also its narrator, muse, and maestro. Plus, he lives in an L.A. populated principally by gay artists, drag queens, sympathetic straight women, and the occasional heterosexual male who’s so clueless that he makes everyone else look glamorous just by existing.
Actually, Billy is not meant to be glamorous. According to writer-director Tommy O’Haver, here making his feature debut, the photographer is a “gay Everyman.” His everyday friends include occasional lover Fernando (Armando Valdes-Kennedy), painter Georgiana (Meredith Scott Lynn, who also co-produced the picture), and established photographer Perry (Richard Ganoung). Perry has agreed to underwrite Billy’s new project, a series of photographs inspired by love scenes from famous Hollywood movies and restaged with all-male players. Then Billy meets pretty-boy waiter Gabriel (Brad Rowe, a former D.C. financial manager whose face melds the features of Brad Pitt and Rob Lowe).
Gabriel is an aspiring rock musician who has recently arrived from San Francisco, where his girlfriend still lives. Billy asks Gabriel to pose for his “screen kiss” series, and the two become friends. (They bond over a mutual interest in Hüsker Dü and Sugar, although the soundtrack features the campier sounds of Petula Clark, Nina Simone, and Xavier Cugat.) Billy wants more than friendship, though, and Gabriel hints that he does, too. After an excruciatingly inconclusive encounter in bed, Gabriel gets a big-time modeling job, and Billy follows him to a party on Catalina Island to resolve their relationship.
This is a simple storythe credits bill the film as “a Tommy O’Haver trifle”but it’s not simply told. Demonstrating the extent of his old-Hollywood obsession, Hayes uses wide-screen Cinemascope and includes explicit homages to such films as Vertigo and From Here to Eternity. The director and crew, notably cinematographer Mark Mervis, give the film a rich, distinctive palette whose inspiration Hayes credits partially to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Billy’s story is supplemented by Polaroids of his life and Polaroids that are his work, which function as a low-tech split-screen technique and contrast the rhythm of the film’s many long takes and formal compositions. (No handheld camera for O’Haver; he used a clunky rebuilt Panavision camera of the sort long since abandoned by the major studios.)
There’s also another sort of cinematic history being evoked here: O’Haver intentionally cast veterans of landmark gay films, including Ganoung (who appeared in 1985’s Parting Glances), actor-director Paul Bartel (playing a well-established photographer of gay beefcake), and
superstar Holly Woodlawn. O’Haver’s film may be a trifle, but it’s not rootless.
Watching this lighthearted and indeed almost idyllic portrayal of tortured gay romance, I was reminded of a recent Village Voice “Queer Issue” in which distraught essayists fretted about the emergence of a “post-gay” culture in which once-provocative subcultures have lost their edge. Maybe that’s a problem, but if Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss represents post-gay life, it doesn’t look so bad.
While Eyewitness News crews across the country scramble to document the latest assaults of shadowy criminals on neighborhoods where “things like this don’t happen,” Amerindie filmmakers rush to celebrate the exploits of such felons’ dumber, sweeter-natured cousins. Whether drenched in Tarantino gore or wearing buttocks padding, ambitious but maladroit crooks like Safe Men’s Sam and Eddie reassure viewers that crime is so mortifying that it doesn’t matter if it pays.
Convinced that his ass is too small, Sam (Box of Moonlight’s Sam Rockwell) is the one who wears the posterior prosthesis; his partner Eddie (That Thing You Do!’s Steve Zahn) is normal by comparison, but only by comparison. Both are convinced that their hideous singing act will make them “the Simon and Garfunkel of the Millennium.” In the meantime, the pals are failing quite miserably as safecrackers. The vaults and strongboxes of Providence, R.I., would be entirely secure, except that there’s another duo of young men who are more skilled at drilling, cutting, and combination-cracking.
Sam and Eddie’s predicament begins when local crime boss Big Fat Bernie Gayle (Michael Lerner, reprising his Barton Fink role in workout togs) mistakes the twosome for the real safe men. Bernie’s lieutenant, Veal Chop (Paul Giamatti), sets the young bumblers up, and then Bernie establishes some terms: Sam and Eddie must break three safes, beginning with one belonging to Bernie’s local rival, Good Stuff Leo (Harvey Fierstein). The point of this exercise, it’s subsequently revealed, is to obtain a bar mitzvah gift for Bernie Gayle Jr., a chubby kid who prefers video hockey to practicing his Torah passage.
Yes, the Gayles are Jewish, and so are Good Stuff Leo and his daughter Hannah (Christina Kirk), who not only becomes Sam’s love interest but is also the ex of one of the real safecrackers. Perhaps these Jewish mob bosses are an inside joke for Providence residents, who know the town’s reputation for gangsters who are overwhelmingly gentile. Mostly, though, it seems that first-time feature writer-director John Hamburg just thinks that words like “Rosh Hashanah” and “bar mitzvah” are a giggle. Hamburg cites Woody Allen as a major influence, and Safe Men’s characterization of upper-middle-class Jews as vulgar and silly echoes that of Allen’s querulous Deconstructing Harry. Where Allen’s depiction was pointed, however, Safe Men’s is pointless.
Although he identifies only some of them by ethnic heritage, Hamburg treats all his characters with equal condescension. The other safecrackers prattle inanely, Reservoir Dogs-style, about which Charlie’s Angel they’d most like to screw, and Veal Chop is required to do a robot dance. Even the musicmostly pop-funk from that innately hilarious decade, the ’70sis presented with an unseen but unmistakable curl of the upper lip. Perhaps we’re supposed to be charmed by young lovers Sam and Hannah, but Sam and Eddie quickly prove tiresome. As with the odd-couple protagonists of such kindred films as Bottle Rocket and Shooting Fish, the pair’s feeble chemistry can’t sustain a feature-length movieand at 89 minutes Safe Men is barely feature-length.
The film does have some funny touches, but mostly ones that don’t advance the plot. When not confined by narrative or character, Hamburg shows a flair for the absurd. One of these moments comes at the very end of the credits, so if you do see Safe Men, stay until the final frame. With a movie this fitfully amusing, shrewd viewers won’t want to skip a possible laugh. CP