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The gay ghetto hits the beach in Lie Down With Dogs; Hugh Grant hits bottom in Nine Months

Wednesday, Jul 12 1995
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If Lie Down With Dogs, the first feature film by Wally White, were a child, it would need therapy for hyperactivity. The movie tries anything and everything to attract attention. It makes a lot of noise, fastens admiringly on the bright baubles of a certain stratum of gay life, and is sufficiently unsure of its worth to never risk slowing down. Dogs rides an ecstatic current of youthful energy, but despite all the breathless visual acrobatics and a thumping soundtrack, the ride leads nowhere. The movie ends where it begins.

White serves as general impresario of Dogs. He not only wrote, directed, and hustled up the money to produce the movie, he also stars in it -- which makes sense, because the film feels nakedly autobiographical. White plays a young New Yorker named Tommie. He continually adds his gloss to the movie's action through asides spoken directly into the camera, as if in a play.

The direct address to the audience is but one of the many film-school gimmicks White exuberantly deploys to propel his small story. From moment to moment, the film might resemble a music video or a commercial for cross-training shoes or a light comedy from the 1940s. One scene is shot in black and white, with the camera moving ceaselessly around a table at which three bitchy young men are seated; another is nothing more than White's large, square head surrounded by a multicolored assortment of revolving neon penises.

These flourishes of technique do not comfortably square with the movie's narrative slightness. The story is a sassy retelling of a classic grade-school theme: what I did on my summer vacation. As Dogs begins, Tommie works in Manhattan at the thankless task of leafletting a hostile public. It is hot and miserable, and everyone who has enough money has fled the city for the beach.

Tommie hasn't got much money, but he does have two friends who have a Jeep and are driving up to Provincetown, the gay enclave at the tip of Cape Cod. He bums a ride with them, after first making sure that he has some credit left on a charge card or two.

P-town, that quaint old fishing village, is hopping with flirty boys, and Tommie spends his first minutes in a public square being cruised left and right. The erotic energy briefly distracts him from the practical difficulties at hand: He has nowhere to stay and no livelihood.

If you are young and attractive and destitute, the thing to be in summertime Provincetown is a houseboy. Easier said than done: Tommie is a Johnny-come-lately, and all the best houseboy gigs, he is told, were filled by Memorial Day. In a round of desperate interviews, he barely escapes the clutches of one foul queen and quits after spending a single night in the dungeonlike basement of another.

But no matter. Provincetown is a resort, and jobs don't count. Jobs -- and careers -- are for the city. In P-town, only love matters, and Tommie promptly falls in love with a boy named Tom (Randy Becker, whose big dick was such a hit in Terrence McNally's play Love! Valour! Compassion! that The New Yorker published a story about audience reaction to it), whom he meets at a party.

Tom, with his short black hair, olive skin, and finely cut features, is the picture of Mediterranean loveliness. He's also a manipulative asshole and a practitioner of enthusiastic but bad sex.

Luckily the town is swimming with other possibilities. There's Chris (Ken Bonnin), for one, the boyishly preppy waiter who brings Tommie his orange juice every morning. They go to bed, but nothing much comes of it. And there's Ben (Darren Dryden), a friendly bicyclist who's nonetheless widely written off as an attitude queen because no one can imagine anyone so handsome not being snotty. When Ben casually says good morning to Tommie, the world nearly stops turning on its axis while the meaning of this small pleasantry is weighed.

Tommie pretends not to be too interested in Ben, whom he claims to find not all that attractive. Besides, he must tread lightly with the explosive Tom, who doesn't deal well with rejection and throws a scene after an unsuccessful attempt to bum a cigarette from Tommie. At last they break up, and Tommie, riding his bike among the dunes, runs into Ben. In a setting free of prying eyes and dishy banter, the two make the movie's only real connection -- but it turns out that Ben already has a boyfriend.

Lie Down With Dogs is often very funny, and it moves too swiftly ever to be boring, but it lacks the edge that might have made it something special. Most of the time, the movie seems like a television sitcom gone queer. Its observations about gay life are often amusingly accurate, but they are not acute enough, or pursued with enough rigor, to qualify as genuine satire. The general tone of Dog's cleverness is that of a 12-year-old boy making faces for a wedding photographer -- cute in a silly way, cautiously irreverent, but not very memorable.

Is it possible that White cannot tell, for instance, how stupendously uninteresting his characters are, from Tommie on down? Their lives consist of nothing more than parties, romantic dreams about their next Prince Charming, and dread of having to go back to Manhattan. Even friendships, which exist for the most part beyond the distorting vortex of desire, amount to distressingly little. When Tommie appears at the home of his friend Guy (Bash Halow), complaining of not feeling well and asking to be driven to the clinic, Guy can't be bothered to stop sipping his iced tea, even though two cars sit in the drive.

Modern gay life is certainly ripe for satire, but Wally White doesn't get the job done. Like so many young New Yorkers on the make, he seems to be as obsessed with money and social status as any of his characters, whom he might, if he really had nerve and a proper perspective, ruthlessly send up. He is too much in the life to see it whole; he wants to be naughty, an enfant terrible, but even more, he wants to belong.

In a disco scene in the middle of the film, Tommie stands at the side of the dance floor and plays a little game he calls "Square State," in which he identifies, by pointing to unfashionable clothes and untrendy haircuts, those boys who come from the big square states in the middle of the country. Boys who don't count -- unlike, say, young Manhattanites full of idle snobbery. It's one of the movie's few moments of authentic nastiness, and it's too bad Wally White slops it all over himself.

If Hugh Grant's career goes into the tank, it won't be because of ill-advised blow jobs from Sunset Boulevard tarts. It will be because he persists in making such brutally bad movies as Nine Months. For most of the film's running time of 103 minutes, Grant wears a faint grimace, as though he senses the true awfulness of the enterprise without having quite come to terms with his (well-paid) place in it. Or maybe his shoes are simply too tight.

The movie was adapted for the American screen (from the French movie Neuf Mois) and directed by Chris Columbus, who has proved -- in Gremlins and the Home Alone movies -- that he can make exciting movies about bratty children. Alas, like his mighty progenitor, Steven Spielberg, Columbus seems to have difficulty in evoking adult characters. The children in Nine Months are convincingly savage, like castaways from The Addams Family, but the grown-ups, whose movie this is, are all cardboard cutouts mouthing twaddle.

The one exception is Robin Williams, who uses his small part to whip up a genuine comic hysteria. He plays Dr. Kosovitch, a hapless Russian obstetrician whose lack of physical dexterity rivals that of Inspector Clouseau and who, with his heavy accent, sounds like the lovable huckster Dr. Nick Riviera from The Simpsons. He ministers to Grant's pregnant girlfriend, Rebecca (Julianne Moore), with a series of malapropisms that culminate in the cheery announcement, "Let's have a look at your Volvo!"

Williams' brilliant performance is lonely, like a flare shot into a rainy night sky. Jeff Goldblum, as a failed painter, delivers his self-lacerating lines with taut drollery, but the rest of the actors embarrass themselves. Tom Arnold imports from TV the assaultive buffoonery that has made him an icon of American manhood. Joan Cusack, as his wife, whines about nearly everything except her dishpan hands; she looks like she needs a good soak in Palmolive. When she lets loose with an obscene volley in the delivery room, it's as if her real medical issue isn't pregnancy but an undiagnosed case of Tourette's syndrome.

Most of the time, Nine Months seems like a bad Marx brothers movie, and the malnourished story line might have been lifted from a supermarket paperback. Grant knocks up his longtime live-in girlfriend; she wants the baby, he doesn't; she bails in self-righteous anger. But in the end, everyone genuflects toward the great altar of parenthood (except Goldblum, who pitches his hokey painting of Alcatraz into the bay).

The movie was filmed in a San Francisco of startling foglessness -- a detail that perfects the movie's detachment from authenticity. The endless sunshine is as phony as every scene it illuminates.

Lie Down
With Dogs
opens Fri,
July 14,
at the Lumiere
in S.F.

Nine Months opens Wed,
July 12,
at area
cinemas.

About The Author

Paul Reidinger

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