In & Out

inoutWhen Tom Hanks accepted his Oscar for Philadelphia and thanked his gay high-school drama teacher, he surely had no idea he was planting the seed for one of the year’s best comedies. Hanks’ heartfelt homage to his mentor — who was already “out” and retired — is recreated, and given a fiendish twist, at the beginning of In & Out. Howard Brackett (Kevin Kline), a beloved high-school teacher in a sleepy Indiana town, is watching the Oscars along with a billion other people. His former student, the hot young movie star Cameron Drake (Matt Dillon), wins Best Actor and singles out Howard in his acceptance speech — and also outs him. Howard’s fiancée (Joan Cusack), students, and parents are shocked — they had no idea Howard was gay. Then again, neither did Howard.

In & Out, sharply written by comic genius Paul Rudnick (Jeffrey, the Addams Family movies), is a gentle and knowing comedy about stereotypes that also reclaims and embraces stereotypes. A man who adores Barbra Streisand and moves with grace! Oh, the horror! The movie suggests that it isn’t gay people that scare many homophobes — it’s gay style. If, for example, Howard were an openly gay lumberjack who loved football and the Three Stooges, his fellow Hoosiers might shrug. He’d be gay, but at least he’d be manly.

But no, Howard is one of those is-he-or-isn’t-he guys. He teaches poetry. He gets into arguments over whether Yentl was a disappointment. He talks with his hands (and his wrists) and can’t help surrendering to a disco beat. Yet he vehemently denies that he’s gay — after all, he’s due to be married in a week! (Yes, married to a woman who’s going nuts from three platonic years with Howard.) So, is he or isn’t he? Put it this way: The movie would have little point if it were a feature-length retread of the famous Seinfeld outing episode (not that there’s anything wrong with that — except that it’s been done).

Howard is hounded by the media, including openly gay reporter Peter Malloy (Tom Selleck in a suave turn). Everyone wants to know: is he or isn’t he? (Presumably, the town will rest easier once they know one way or the other.) If Howard is gay, he hasn’t even come out to himself; if not, he’s a feminine celibate whom everyone thinks is gay anyway. He can’t win. Kevin Kline, a great comedian, nails Howard’s confusion, despair, and embarrassment — but never shame. Howard learns to accept his identity — whatever that may be.

Paul Rudnick has written scenes that will go down as classics. The “Exploring Your Masculinity” session is a riot, and the clips from Cameron’s oh-so-PC gay-soldier epic To Serve and Protect are viciously funny. Frank Oz, a solid actor’s director who knows how to stay out of the way of a great script, keeps things moving up to the triumphant finale, which spoofs Spartacus as well as Dead Poets Society. And there’s superb support from Bob Newhart as Howard’s stammering principal, Debbie Reynolds and Wilford Brimley as his parents, and especially the formidable Joan Cusack as Howard’s fiancée, who’s so bewildered she’s borderline psychotic. In & Out is somewhat safe and hetero-friendly in the Hollywood tradition of The Birdcage — though it does dare to show two men in a prolonged smooch — but it’s still the freshest, wittiest comedy in a long time.

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