Two Guys, a Girl and None of Them Gay

Damon Santostefano’s Three to Tango , from a screenplay by Rodney Vaccaro and Aline Brosh McKenna, turns out to be one of the most pleasant surprises of this hectically overbooked season. Light comedies like this are especially vulnerable to the charge-which has been broadcast all over the Internet in this case-that they are not funny even though the audience was roaring with laughter when I saw it. Mr. Santostefano’s directorial debut runs the additional risk of satirizing homophobic anxieties about being perceived as something one is not, all in the context of a predominantly heterosexual romance. Still, there is no campy cross-dressing or effete swishing in the mix for cheap laughs. Instead, Three to Tango is gay in the old-fashioned connotation; it’s lighthearted, merry, cheerful and ebullient.

Much of the credit goes to Matthew Perry, an actor whose name is more familiar to me than is his screen personality to the point that I felt I was discovering a talent I had never before recognized. Here he plays Oscar Novak, an ambitious architect who talks too much and too whimsically to convince clients that he is the right man for the job (my lifelong career problem as well.)

Through a series of spirited contrivances, the straight Oscar finds himself in the same kind of predicament that Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis as drag queens experienced in Billy Wilder’s classic Some Like It Hot (1959). Once Mr. Perry’s character finds himself tagged as gay by a pair of rival architects competing for the same multimillion-dollar commission, he plays it rigorously straight, literally and figuratively. No lisps and no limp wrists. Indeed, there is not a single caricature of any sexual option, real or imagined. You’ve seen something like this before many times, and very recently, too, but seldom with as much sustained charm, wit and warmth as is generated here.

To complicate matters, Oscar’s professional partner is gay, though Oliver Platt’s Peter Steinberg does not flaunt his predilections in public until the Capraesque climax when all bets are off and all masks are discarded. Neve Campbell’s Amy Post is the luminous flame around which an assortment of male moths flutter. She serves not only as an object of Oscar’s love, lust and affection, but also as an exacting moral litmus test for him. Thus, what would have been a banal, happy ending is thoroughly earned with a final flash of redemptive truth, for which Mr. Vaccaro’s and Ms. McKenna’s script shares credit with the admirably modulated direction. Dylan McDermott gleefully adds vinegar to all the sweetness by playing against sympathetic leading-man type as Charles Newman, the insidiously manipulative millionaire-adulterer.

It is Newman who unsuspectingly orders the reputedly gay Oscar to keep watch on Amy, Newman’s very bohemian and artistic mistress. If Oscar refuses, he and Peter stand to lose a $60 million commission. Nonetheless, knowing of Oscar’s romantic follies with women, Peter warns him to refuse Newman’s request, whatever the consequences. For his part, Oscar never exploits his false position to take advantage of Amy. This is restoration comedy with a benign twist, and some may find it too sentimental for their taste.

Admittedly, Three to Tango walks a thin line between the old conventions of straight romance, and the new options of uncloseted gay identity, most amusingly incarnated in an unexpectedly gay football star (Cylk Cozart) with a casual acceptance of his own legendary sexual prowess. Ultimately, Three to Tango works as a comedy with an edge, but also with the heart and soul of the best old Hollywood movies. Mr. Perry, Ms. Campbell, Mr. McDermott, Mr. Platt and Mr. Cozart partake of the fizz from the old screwball classics. I suspect that the anonymously bad-mouthing oracles of the Internet are too young to remember that far back, and too smug in their certitudes to care even if they aren’t.

Mr. Scorsese’s Divine Comedy

All I need say about Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead , from a screenplay by Paul Schrader, based upon the novel by Joe Connelly, is that it is a cinch to be on lists of the best films of the year, and all my multitudes of readers should flock to see it as soon as possible.

I take this tone because Paramount-or the film’s publicist or someone-insisted that I not review the film before it opened. This sort of thing hasn’t happened to me since a studio executive on the scene at a pre-Sundance film festival in Park City, Utah, threatened to bodily evict me from an early screening of Sydney Pollack’s The Electric Horseman (1979) with Jane Fonda and Robert Redford. Nothing happened, and I went on to write a moderately favorable review of that moderately pleasant entertainment. The point is, I found Mr. Scorsese’s film artistically accomplished, religiously inspired and spiritually mature, and had all my colleagues not already written about it, I would have much more to say.

Briefly, I’ll say this: Between Mr. Scorsese’s anguished Roman Catholicism, Mr. Schrader’s tortured Dutch Reformed Protestantism, and who knows what from Mr. Connelly’s childhood churchgoing experiences, Bringing Out the Dead reverberates with all the metaphysical resonance of a film by Robert Bresson or Carl Dreyer. Dante has been invoked by some of my colleagues to describe the ascent of the film’s protagonist, Frank Pierce, played by Nicolas Cage, from the Inferno of Manhattan’s lower depths to the Paradiso of a woman’s mercifully maternal arms. This redemptive scenario is structured like Herman Melville’s Moby Dick , with Mr. Cage’s Ahab astride his white whale of an ambulance, while his three mates-harpooners-drivers expound in sequence their contrasting philosophies for staying sane in an insane occupation within a neon-lit nocturnal universe we remember fondly from that previous Scorsese-Schrader collaboration, Taxi Driver (1976).

I would have praised the whole cast headed by Mr. Cage, who deserves another Oscar to match the one he garnered for his similarly obsessed role in Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas (1995). As the serial Greek chorus of paramedic charioteers, John Goodman as the food-frenzied Larry, Ving Rhames as the ironic revivalist Marcus and Tom Sizemore as the retaliatory Tom Walls, contribute enormously to the intermittently gruesome fun and games that make Bringing Out the Dead such a richly and darkly humorous experience.

Patricia Arquette as Mary Burke, the angrily bereaved daughter of a heart-attack victim, and Mary Beth Hurt as the tough-talking but warmhearted Nurse Constance act up to the allegorical significations of their first names in Mr. Scorsese’s Divine Comedy. My only reservation about the film concerns its overly episodic construction that is nonetheless consistent with Mr. Scorsese’s past tendencies as the Jackson Pollock of the American cinema insofar as his scenes explode from within the canvas instead of flowing together in a steady, inexorable current of storytelling. But what scenes! And what acting, writing and direction!

Now Back to Topic A

Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry , from a screenplay by Ms. Peirce and Andy Bienen, might well be retitled The Crying Shame in homage to Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game (1992), which opened the floodgates to show-and-tell transvestitism on the screen in ever more violent contexts. But none has been more brutal than the re-enactment of a real-life homicide linked to homosexual impersonation in the lower depths of America’s Nebraskan heartland, and depths don’t get any lower than they do in this implied plea for tolerance of eccentricity.

The movie has received rave reviews, largely for the passionate performances of Hilary Swank who pretended to be one of the guys, and Chloë Sevigny whose character didn’t care what he or she was, in her love for the tender and romantic stranger. My problem with the film is twofold: First, I did not believe Ms. Swank as a guy, particularly one who hangs out in bars that reek of cheap beer, rotgut whisky and a stream of urine. Second, I am tired of looking down on louts and losers who lack my exquisite sophistication about every variety of human experience and sexual masquerade. Hence, I felt manipulated in the midst of a grubby milieu with a mumbly sordidness I am weary of encountering on the Sundance circuit.

Lukas Moodysson’s Show Me Love goes for less exotic sexual role-playing than Boys Don’t Cry , but this Swedish import turns out to be more exhilaratingly affirmative about its two high school protagonists, Elin (Alexandra Dahl-ström) and Agnes (Rebecca Liljeberg), for whom an initially derisory kiss from “straight” Elin on the lips of the lonely dyke-ish Agnes leads to a genuine attraction between the two girls that leads them away from the dominant school “clique” and its conformist mind sets forever.

The film is particularly hard on duh boys in the class, and I find them ruefully true and funny because of my own double-duh adolescence, which consisted mostly of panting cluelessly after my mysteriously wise female classmates. Perhaps there is a pattern in my tastes after all. The films I like- L’Ennui , Random Hearts , Show Me Love -are subtler and more patient than the films I dislike- Fight Club and Boys Don’t Cry . My favorites are less violent as well.

Bernd Eichinger’s A Girl Called Rosemarie , from a screenplay by Mr. Eichinger and Uwe Wilhelm, is based on a spectacular unsolved murder case in Frankfurt that created a German media frenzy in the mid-1950′s. Rosemarie Nitribitt (Nina Hoss) is a Marilyn Monroe-like pretty girl in her 20′s who sleeps her way into the highest circles of German industry and officialdom, but always as a demimondaine unacknowledged by high society. She makes the fatal mistake of falling in love with one of her aristocratic conquests and pursuing him single-mindedly until she becomes a threat to the establishment.

Hard as nails almost to the end, Rosemarie generates a surprising amount of pathos when she realizes that she is targeted for death, and nonetheless invades the high temple of society for one last fling with the impossible dream.