Heralded as the first mainstream Italian feature to take a head-on look at contempo gay lifestyles, and a turning point away from grass-roots comedy toward more serious-minded fare for actor and director Christian De Sica, “Men, Men, Men” misfires on both counts. Even with local star power on board, this looks to be a commercial underachiever.
Aiming for affectionate, bittersweet human drama, but sorely lacking a backbone of truth, De Sica’s fourth directorial outing is unable to establish a tone befitting anything other than the lame comedies on which the director cut his teeth. Dragging things down further is a smattering of the crude, easy laughs that characterized his earlier efforts.
To the normally ebullient helmer’s credit, De Sica takes aback seat onscreen as one of a quartet of gay friends watching middle age creep up as they grapple with the standard ups and downs of life, lust, love and loss. But his self-effacing turn only intensifies the glaring lack of conviction the remaining cast members bring to the inert material. De Sica wrote with seasoned commercial scripter Enrico Vanzina before bringing in Giovanni Veronesi to add a more sensitive dimension.
Some pains obviously have been taken to avoid the kind of effete caricatures of gay men usually served up in Italo comedies. In their place, however, script provides less offensive but altogether more banal stereotypes.
Among them are an aging, balding cynic (Alessandro Haber), gaining weight and contemplating old age alone; a bitchy shirt designer (Leo Gullotta), hitched by a powerful love-hate bond to his sickly, domineering mother; a film producer (Massimo Ghini) who came out late after trying to pass as a husband and father; and the not-too-attractive femme friend (Monica Scattini), who serves as the butt of the boys’ jokes until she turns her back on them when her own lover’s masculinity is threatened.
Loosely structured as a series of vignettes forming a six-month diary of the group’s lives, the film’s most fully developed strand follows a heartsick architect (De Sica) whose former assistant and lover (Paolo Conticini) shocks him by opting for heterosexual marriage.
The structural model is clearly Mario Monicelli’s 1975 comedy “My Friends,” but the splashes of black humor here smother the lazily played characters’ already fragile human side. The well-heeled, middle-class quartet show no qualms about posing as vice squad officers to get their hands on a musclebound hustler. Likewise, they blithely pick up three aspiring actresses and then dump them humiliatingly on an isolated prostitution beat.
Even more than commedia all’italiana, however, De Sica presumptuously advertises the influence of his father’s work. The late actor/director is heard crooning over a party scene; after being robbed by a street hustler, Gullotta’s character weeps in a taxi, aping a famous Sophia Loren scene aboard a truck in “Two Women”; and the architect character is named Vittorio.
De Sica shows a sloppy lack of interest in refining his behind-the-camera skills and a failure to elicit anything approaching subtlety from his cast. Only Ghini and (briefly) veteran thesp Carlo Croccolo as a regal old Neapolitan jeweler emerge with anydignity.
In a country notorious for its retrograde attitude toward gay and lesbian issues, De Sica merits some recognition for having presented four well-adjusted gay men. But his film loses major points with dialogue like “We can’t have love the way others do; we have to steal it.”
Not one of the four principals ends up in a satisfying relationship. Instead, by way of conclusion, they are given a successful career, a dog, clandestine afternoon encounters with a married man, and death. Ultimately, the only concrete indication of this misguided effort’s earnest intent is the absence of exclamation marks in the title.