|Writer/director James Sweeney|
STRAIGHT UP B+ USA (95 mi) 2019 d: James Sweeney
I don’t want children. There’s a quote about how homosexuality is God’s way of ensuring the surely gifted aren’t burdened with children. I’m gonna take that to the bank. —James Sweeney, undated interview, James Sweeney : Issue Magazine
Very few filmmakers have this much success this early with their first feature film, striking a deal with Strand Releasing, even preserving his conventional 4:3 aspect ratio (suggesting the lead couple are trapped in a box), which had given other prospective suiters fits, offering a hilarious look at a stereotypical gay boy meeting a straight lonely girl, both young and in their 20’s, where love develops out of deep friendship instead of sexual attraction, with each wondering if this can provide sufficient relationship fulfillment. Sweeney himself, an assistant to Duke Johnson on the film Anomalisa (2015), is an Asian-American who grew up in Alaska without LGBTQ friends before moving to Los Angeles, supposedly hitting the motherlode, but having difficulty fitting in, bemoaning the fact that “most significant gay leading roles in film history have been portrayed by straight actors.” So it’s rather remarkable that he writes, directs, produces, and stars in this over-the-top screwball comedy set in Los Angeles that reinvents the suave sophistication of 1930’s films starring Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, where the frenetic pace of the dialogue is mind-blowingly brisk, described as the director’s “inner Socratic dialogue,” challenging viewers to keep up with such a hyper-articulated script that continuously namedrops cultural references, Straight Up - Official US Trailer HD YouTube (2:03). Sweeney stars as Todd, overtly gay and usually the smartest guy in the room, yet his obsessive-compulsive insecurities about bodily fluids and the negativity associated with being gay make him want to re-evaluate his gender identity, as he was coded gay by a hounding, ruthlessly vengeful culture at such an early age he never had a chance to choose for himself, thinking maybe he was forced into it by social conditioning. Of course, his friends find this a hoot, as he’s the most visibly gay guy in the room wherever he goes, and always has been, where he’s easily accepted within the gay community as one of their own, but he’s never had sex with any of them, other than a brief flirtation with oral, and abhors even the thought of anal sex, which begs the question, maybe he’s not gay after all, perhaps he’s bisexual. Some of the most clever conversations on this issue take place during his therapy sessions with Dr. Larson (Tracie Thoms), a youngish professional black woman with endless patience who continually reminds him his parents are footing the bill. She curiously goes along with his delusions of grandeur, so to speak, thinking it will open avenues in his life that are otherwise closed, yet she’s under no illusions about his gender identity, allowing Todd all the exploration he wants, at one point suggesting “You’re willingly barking up the wrong tree.” Misguided notions are at the heart of romantic comedies, so when he tries to pick up a girl in a bar, bringing her home after a night of endless drinks, he freaks out at the sight of bodily secretions, bringing a quick end to his initial attempt. There’s a kind of playfulness to the way he expresses himself, as he can be illuminating, self-deprecating, ironic, and sarcastic all in the same sentence. He’s a plethora of mood changes and a constant delight, where his literacy levels are off the charts, largely because he’s smart enough to speak his mind, even if he feels constricted by the oppressive forces of conformity that surround him, leaving him lonely and unsatisfied, wanting something more. Enter Rory (Katie Findlay, who describes the film as a “love letter to the in-betweens”), an aspiring actress who does a really good Katharine Hepburn imitation yet can’t land a part or find a decent human connection, having no friends and even loses a waitressing job, while leaving cryptic voicemail phone messages for her mother who happens to live on another continent, thinking perhaps she’s operating on a higher intellectual plane than others and needs to loosen up and not be so exacting. More drama ensues.
When they meet in the self-help section of the library, arguably the best written scene of the film, they discover they are mirror images of one another in terms of razer-sharp-wit and hyper-verbosity, both sharing a love for The Gilmore Girls (2000-2007), talking a million miles a minute, each giving the other a run for their money in terms of personal values and a dark, theater-of-the absurd sense of humor, developing a unique friendship, with Rory moving in, quickly becoming the non-gay girlfriend, becoming a modern era throwback to the wisecracking couple of Nick and Nora Charles in THE THIN MAN (1934). At least initially they’re a stylish young couple, the talk of the town, or at least their small community of friends, none of whom think it will last, claiming it’s a manifestation of Todd’s internalized homophobia, a form of self-hatred over his irrational fear of being gay, just waiting for the other shoe to drop, as none of them believe Todd can be a hetero boyfriend. All that highly opinionated talk initially takes the place of sex, where surprisingly they nearly agree on everything, like two peas in a pod, each loathing the idea of having children, sharing a belief that this is a healthy lifestyle choice, thinking sex is overrated. But when they meet Todd’s friends, showing up at a costume party where she’s dressed to the nines in a white formal dress while he’s in a bathrobe and a crutch, Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman in Cat On a Hot Tin Roof (1958), with all the talk turning to Paul Newman’s role as a repressed homosexual, so they didn’t have sex, claiming the 50’s didn’t allow homosexuality to exist, so it was excised from the storyline and replaced by good-looking hunks like Paul Newman or Rock Hudson. Both seem shocked by this revelation, claiming they just like the movie, yet stories about his past creep in, leaving her more than a little curious about all these accusations that he’s gay, yet she doesn’t want to be subjectively accusatory or define him by gender, allowing him to be who he wants, and clearly he denies being gay, unwilling to be stigmatized by the stereotype, even as all the other men can’t take their hands off him in his robe, playfully touching him in ways that she doesn’t, a position that he seems to adore. When they meet his parents for dinner, Todd is certain his parents are much more comfortable bringing a girl home, pulling out all the stops, even believing they liked him more, claiming he would have gotten a much colder reception if it was a man, Straight Up Clip YouTube (1:08), which only exacerbates his fears. More and more, going against her stated goals, Rory feels a need for physical contact, yet each time she initiates any hint of intimacy he pulls away and avoids her, which is like running into a brick wall. She may have thought abstaining from sex was a perfectly healthy alternative, but it doesn’t end up feeling that way, becoming more and more isolated and emotionally detached, yet Todd notices nothing, following his single-minded pursuit of non-gay happiness at all costs. So when she mentions something, he’s at a loss, obviously not feeling what she feels, still more than a little wrapped up in himself, yet he’s desperate enough to offer opening up their relationship, thinking that might work. The twists and turns here, extending how everything plays out reveals the painful difficulty gays and others have in accepting themselves, needing time to find their own way, unwilling to conform to the commonly perceived perceptions about being labeled, as clearly the exploration process questioning one’s identity is a mammoth personal ordeal, where it feels like no one understands you, even your therapist, but also your closest friends and family, where you’re pretty much on your own, formulating your own ideas and personal agenda. While there may have never been as many support groups as now, still and all, it’s a lonely journey of discovery.
The pure insanity of the tempo may slow down somewhat, growing insatiatingly irritable at times, where the quality of the writing just can’t possibly keep up, yet this is one of the best-written comic ventures seen in years, endlessly quotable, perfectly capturing a youthful model of success, satirizing the overly complacent comforts of middle class life, pretty much making fun of everything it targets, using an innocuous stream of smoothed over soft rock in the background that serves as mood music. The couple argues about everything, including whether rape and homosexuality is a choice, but also school shootings, mental health issues, and even AIDS jokes, dissecting the meaning of Alanis Morissette’s Ironic, Alanis Morissette - Ironic (Official 4K Music Video) - YouTube (4:06), while cleverly trying to identify the white elephant in the room, which throws them into an inquisitive search for the originations of that phrase. During this discussion the thought occurred that she may be a rape survivor, which is never once mentioned, but does explain how words can be used as a defensive self-protective measure. The talky aspect of the film is impressive, maintaining the energy throughout, as is the deadpan delivery, both lead actors continually in sync, while the eye-popping color scheme also feels inspired, citing Kogonada’s 2017 Top Ten List #5 Columbus as an unexpected influence. For the most part it ignores racial stereotypes, yet Todd’s Asian father (Randall Park) goes off on a racist tangent denigrating Mexican people, basically reiterating the Trump line of xenophobia. What’s funny, however, is who it comes from, making it easy for viewers to dislike the father, viewing him as a tragically old-fashioned and unenlightened figure (4th most important in the eyes of his wife), where perspective makes all the difference, as it suggests racism isn’t just spewed by white people. Despite having a diverse cast, the target of the cultural references are overwhelmingly white, which says something about growing up as a gay Asian kid in America, as the pressure to assimilate is enormous, where identities are interchangeable, and cultural chic or hipness are largely viewed by what’s comfortable for white audiences. This is a film that aims to please, targeting the mainstream, but also the gay contingency, as few films take us through the various stages of gay denial as expertly as this one, where a Greek chorus of naysayers follows Todd’s every move, twisting and contorting himself into a psychological pretzel just to be labeled asexual, but Rory’s not buying it, where every word on the scrabble board portends a dark and macabre theme, not a good sign, eventually pulling out of the relationship and moving to Seattle, leaving Todd in panic attack mode, as his biggest fear is dying alone with no one at his side. Rory seems to be settling in Seattle, not really finding happiness, remaining somewhat aloof with her coworkers, missing some of the emotional intensity that came with being with Todd, and happened to dial his number, but quickly hangs up. What follows is a surreal dreamlike rendition of happiness, with Todd making a grand romantic gesture, like one of those dizzying hallucination sequences from (500) Days of Summer (2009), ridiculously over-the-top, where romance is the Hollywood happily-ever-after ending, where he gives it a shot, like Cupid’s arrow, a remarkable appeal directly to her heart, with some hired amateur help doing a few dance steps on the side that are actually more pathetic than pleasing, but it’s the thought that counts. She does her best not to give in to the camp quality of the moment, completely caught off-guard, trying to retain her composure while he makes an absolute fool of himself. There’s an ambiguous aftermath sequence with Todd and Rory playing scrabble together, seemingly happy, but the kicker is another guy sits down and joins them, as if he’s the magic answer to all their problems. Without insinuating one way or another, it certainly portends hope and positivity, leaving a well-deserved smile as the credits roll.