Friends With Benefits 

Two gay poseurs prove human in Chuck & Larry.

I wanted to hate I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry. I truly did. Two straight guys pretending to be gay for (insert fiscal excuse here): Been there, done that, many times over. Rampant homophobia hiding behind liberal pleas for tolerance: Ugh. And yes, the stereotypes pour out of Chuck & Larry like cheap wine. But if it's anything other than a showcase for Adam Sandler, this movie is about the inseparability of homophobia and deep sexual anxiety. And what better force field for that little can of worms than a Brooklyn firehouse, where two hyper-hetero firemen file for domestic partnership in order to lock down pension benefits for one of them.

Stalled in grief for his dead wife and worried about providing for his children -- whom he adores, despite the fact that the girl loves sports and the boy tap-dances -- Larry (King of Queens' Kevin James) refuses to remarry, for benefits, a woman he might actually get close to. So when he discovers a new clause allowing gay partner benefits, he asks his best-friend-forever, Chuck (Adam Sandler), to fake a marriage.

It's a stretch to buy Sandler, whose character likes to entertain whip-toting Hooters girls in his horribly decorated bachelor pad, as a Lothario, let alone as Mr. February in the fire-station calendar. This, after all, is a man who's banked millions by playing vaguely (and not-so vaguely) mentally disabled heroes. But love him or hate him, Sandler understands that winking at the audience can derail a comedy in seconds, and that if you're going to offend liberal sensibilities, you have to go all the way. For all the sitcom capering, he and James play their skittish partnership absolutely, well, straight.

So, this strenuously odd couple grows -- bed-sharing included -- into the genuinely endearing Honeymooners couple they've always been at heart, while the world around them erupts into an orgy of limp wrists, ethnic stereotypes, and closet cases. Chief among them is a suitably weaselly Steve Buscemi, who plays a fanny-pack-toting government investigator who fiercely hunts down fake gays. Fat jokes abound too, and I'd give anything to see the outtakes from a seemingly endless breast-fondling scene between Sandler and dainty Jessica Biel, who plays the couple's trusting defense lawyer and displays more guts than talent for physical comedy. No holds are barred, either, in the movie's funniest scene, in which a bunch of red-blooded firefighters, freaking out at the sight of allegedly gay bums, do strange things with soap in the communal shower. If nothing else, Chuck & Larry should open up a whole new career path for the ineffably funny, unself-consciously buck-naked Ving Rhames, who plays an über-macho firefighter who's been sitting on a little secret of his own.

Astonishingly, Chuck & Larry's screenplay is credited to Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor -- not guys you'd associate with such go-for-it vulgarity, although there were hints of raunch in the famous hotel sequence between Thomas Haden Church and Sandra Oh in their wine buddy pic, Sideways. Chuck & Larry's studied crassness warms up the writing team's chic nihilism, and assuming that they haven't been heavily rewritten by co-screenwriter Barry Fanaro (The Golden Girls) or director Dennis Dugan (Big Daddy, Happy Gilmore, and The Benchwarmers), they go at it with such gusto that I totally bought the movie's dust-covered message about the primacy of friendship over sexual preference. It is far worse to be a jerk than to be homo, hetero, or any other kind of sexual. Listening to Chuck and Larry defend their union to an austere city councilman (yes, that is Richard Chamberlain), you too will be willing to bare your hairy bottom for AIDS research. (Don't ask.)

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