Sunday, August 03, 2008

Adam and Steve (Craig Chester, 2005)

Brokeback Manhattan

Craig Chester's Adam & Steve is a 2005 gay picture that for some undecipherable reason the distributors thought would actually make money in Manila theaters, three years after its initial commercial run, (don't ask me--I just write about them, I don't decide them). Might have worked too, for all I know; problem is, they should have picked a comedy--a funny one.

Chester's picture starts out amusing enough: Chester plays Adam, dressed and made up as a Goth; Malcolm Gets is Steve, a Danceteria Dazzle Dancer Adam for once in his loser life manages to take home with him. Steve does a striptease, commits a traumatically embarrassing act (he'd been doing some serious cocaine, cut with all kinds of inappropriate substances), and runs off forever.

Fast forward fifteen years later. Adam's rushing his dog into the emergency room--why there and not a veterinary hospital, I don't know. "We don't treat animals here" a security guard naturally and very sensibly tells him; Steven, now a psychiatrist, agrees to treat the canine anyway. Adam doesn't recognize Steve from years before, but sparks fly; before you can say "Holy powdered laxatives!" they're dating each other steadily, in post-9/11 New York.

Odd sidenote: the movie wears its New York City setting proudly on its sleeve. At various points we're treated to a longtime New Yorker's walking tour of the city, from rowboating in Central Park's Lake to crossing the length of the Brooklyn Bridge's wooden walkway, with its magnificent East Side view; it's constantly throwing in details of the city's social life, from exotic coffees and soda drinks to rehab meetings for various addictions. One might consider it the gay, low-budget equivalent of Sex and the City; it's certainly self-absorbed enough--New York is the entire universe, the rest of the world just some shadowy afterthought existing in the margins. And there's sex everywhere, and the need--no, hunger (no accident, I think, that Chester looks vampiric in the pic's opening scenes)--to connect.

For the most part the whole unlikely thing works: Chester and Gets make a remarkably sweet couple, and even the occasional running gag about beer bottle-tossing homophobia has its appeal, with a punchline that one may or may not find amusing, depending on one's tolerance for amateurish flinging. They get able support from Parker Posey and Chris Kattan as their respective best friends, and a minor constellation of comic talents: Sally Kirkland, Melinda Dillon, among others.

Maybe the comic high point of the picture is when Adam presents Steve to his family, incurable victims of the Bernstein Curse. Adam's mother turns out to be Julie Hagerty, which explains a lot about Adam--she's as wide-eyed and demented and unflappably cheerful as she's ever been, from Airplane! (1980) to Lost in America (1985).

That's the good stuff; the movie starts to fall apart when Chester decides to get serious on a decidedly unserious premise: he has Steve recognize Adam as the hapless Goth he'd turned onto drugs (among other shameful acts), and breaks up with him. One wants to ask: why this, why now? Because the picture's been coasting along on good will and character detail, Chester must be thinking, and requires some kind of third-act conflict, to wrap things up (too bad--if he had ended on a less hysterical note, we might have found out what a collaboration between Jacques Rivette and John Waters might have played like).

Adam plays the part of the jilted bride and is by turns hurt, bitchy, furious. No cliché is left unmolested, no sentimental device left brutally unmilked; in the movie's extreme low point, Steve pulls Adam aside and sings him "Something Good" from The Sound of Music (1965). No stomach was left unturned.

It doesn't help that the dialogue, which up to this point had been more or less persuasive (besides the constant subliminal "I love New York" advertising) descends to treacly sloganeering: "I may be damaged goods, but I'm goods none the less;" "I choose you! I choose you!" Was not aware that there was an urgent need in this world for a gay equivalent to Jerry Maguire--the original was blood-curdling enough as is.

It doesn't help that Chester has all the visual sense and gift for depth of a publisher of pop-up books; it's possible he's trying to emulate John Waters' it's-all-there amateurishness but for all of Waters' faults, he had a distinct and powerful philosophical view: perversion and pleasure and pain are indistinguishable from each other, and should be savored accordingly; Chester doesn't seem to have anything more on his mind than a simple romantic comedy, with onscreen diarrhea thrown in for good measure.

Just think what the late, great Joey Gosiengfiao might have done with all this, and on a considerably smaller budget? Gosiengfiao would have thrown in the laxative (only with more immersive results), would have included the surrealism (only with more wit), would definitely have made sure there were dance numbers (only more gracefully staged), and even had someone sing something out of Sound of Music, only it would have been horrifyingly funny, instead of just horrifying. A wasted opportunity, all around.

(First published on 8.2.08 in Businessworld 8.1.08)

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