If the Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority commissioned Jesse Helms, Robert Dornan, and Pat Buchanan to collaborate on a feature film, the result couldn’t be more gay-negative than Lie Down With Dogs. Promoted by Miramax as “a spirited romantic comedy about one gay man’s pursuit of romance and happiness during a summer at the beach,” writer/director/actor Wally White’s brainless, pointless vanity project is the answer to a homophobe’s prayer.
White stars as Tommie, a frustrated, vaguely depressed young New Yorker facing a boring summer in the city. His only apparent source of income is distributing flyers for Les Miserables in Times Square, though, inexplicably, that job allows him to maintain a comfortable midtown apartment. Encouraged by a friend, he decides to escape to Provincetown for a summer of sun, surf, sex, and self-discovery.
Nearly 30 minutes elapse before Tommie actually reaches Cape Cod. White, who spends much of the film speaking directly to the camera, delays the narrative by contemplating his artistic alternatives. A duo of angry gay activists insist that his movie should present a radical political agenda, and call for an audience boycott if their demands are not met. Four horny pornophiles urge him to focus his project on “big dicks,” describing in lurid detail the kind of film they’d enjoy seeing. Although the opening credits—printed on the underpants waistbands of anonymous, well-endowed models—indicate that White has selected the second option, his ultimate choice is less satisfying than either suggestion. He opts for that threadbare middle-school creative writing chestnut—The Summer I Learned About Life.
Cash-poor but armed with credit cards—how did he manage to secure them?—Tommie arrives in P-town without a job or lodgings. The remaining hour of this disjointed movie depicts his attempts to find work, shelter, friends, and a lover. Applying for houseboy positions, he encounters a collection of oddballs—lechers, neurotics, tightfisted recovering alcoholics—and resides in a series of guest houses, crash pads, and apartments. He has a passionate fling with Tom (Randy Becker), a muscular Latino con man; befriends Guy (Bash Halow), a decadent party animal; and keeps bumping into Ben (Darren Dryden), the summer’s Hot Number ogled by everyone, but dismissed by Tommie as a conceited male bimbo. The film ends with Tommie headed back to Manhattan, having learned next-to-nothing about life or himself, but hopeful that next summer’s jaunt to the Cape will yield wisdom and love.
Lie Down With Dogs is situated in the no-man’s-land between autobiography and fiction—more than a memoir but less than art. Toothy, sibilant White, an NYU film school graduate who resembles the young Hume Cronyn, spent the summer of 1991 working in Provincetown and decided to make a movie based on his experiences there. The search for backers led to a string of disappointments and misadventures. His uncle, the author of Ross Perot’s economic plan and, subsequently, a Clinton adviser, volunteered to contribute his director’s fee in exchange for shooting a Perot campaign documentary. But Perot dropped out of the presidential race, ending that source of financing. Then a minister-therapist vacationing in Provincetown offered to underwrite the project, but two days before shooting was to begin, he vanished, his checks bounced, and he was exposed as a pathological liar. Ultimately, White, like his protagonist, maxed out nine credit cards to produce a promotional trailer which, along with the screenplay and 20 minutes of rough footage, convinced Miramax to back the project.
It’s depressing to discover how little White has to show for his persistence. Near the end of the film, he asserts, “My job as a filmmaker is not to be boring,” but Lie Down With Dogs is a meandering yawnfest. His characters, and the actors who impersonate them, are uniformly vapid and uncompelling, bereft of purpose and wit. George Mitas’ drab, blurry camerawork fails to capture the summery charms of Cape Cod, and Jellybean Benitez’s musical score—anonymous pop blended with recurrent strains of “Beautiful Dreamer” outfitted with dumb special lyrics—sounds like the work of a preteen garage band. Amateurish devices abound—scenes frequently conclude with the camera tilting up to the heavens—and the screenplay is stocked with thudding lines (one character is described as a “Native American Indian”) and internal inconsistencies. Tommie and Tom’s initial, pot-fueled love scene begins with hot kissing on the beach. Subsequently, the relationship flounders largely because of Tom’s refusal to kiss during sex. (His reason—AIDS anxiety or fear of emotional commitment—is unclear.) White’s dialogue betrays an off-putting contemptuousness. Tommie humiliates a pretty tourist who drops a flier on a Times Square sidewalk; “square state” visitors to Provincetown are ridiculed for their wardrobes and unsophisticated behavior. Nothing about White’s substandard writing, direction, or performance justifies this condescending tone. Houseboys in glass guest rooms shouldn’t throw stones.
Like the recent, vastly superior Bar Girls, Lie Down With Dogs is conceived as an insider’s depiction of gay society. Yet not a single character in the large cast—the ensemble features more than 30 speaking roles—expresses or pursues any goal beyond the shallow, immediate gratifications of food, drugs, booze, money, and sex. I’d be the last to suggest that White should have presented a sanitized, politically correct vision of homosexual culture, but surely he could have included a few characters of substance. In failing to do so, his film inadvertently reinforces uninformed, stereotypical misconceptions about gay people. Attempting to position himself as the queer Spike Lee, White proves to be little more than a gay Stepin Fetchit.