A very broad mainstream comedy, "In & Out" has more trouble than it should stretching a high-concept premise into 90 minutes of mirth. Basically a one-joke farce that plays around with a once-delicate subject that by now is a mainstay even on TV, this "Is he or isn't he?" situation comedy about a prim Midwestern schoolteacher whose sexuality is placed uncomfortably in the national spotlight should ride a number of good laughs, a feel-good demeanor and a fine lead performance by Kevin Kline to solid B.O. in wide early-fall release.

A very broad mainstream comedy, “In & Out” has more trouble than it should stretching a high-concept premise into 90 minutes of mirth. Basically a one-joke farce that plays around with a once-delicate subject that by now is a mainstay even on TV, this “Is he or isn’t he?” situation comedy about a prim Midwestern schoolteacher whose sexuality is placed uncomfortably in the national spotlight should ride a number of good laughs, a feel-good demeanor and a fine lead performance by Kevin Kline to solid B.O. in wide early-fall release.

Penned by Paul Rudnick, best known for the gay-themed Off Broadway hit “Jeffrey,” this well- cast picture was triggered by Tom Hanks’ Oscar acceptance speech in which he thanked his high school drama teacher. Here, however, the ultra-cool young star Cameron Drake (Matt Dillon), who wins the Academy Award for a gay-themed war drama, goes a step further by outing his mentor to millions of viewers on the telecast, calling him “a great gay teacher.”

The problem is, Howard Brackett (Kline) is not only not “out,” he is not, he claims, even gay. True, he wears a trim little bow tie, has a possibly inordinate fondness for Barbra Streisand and has passed the age of 40 without marrying, but the latter situation, at least, is about to change: After a three-year (and unconsummated) courtship, Howard is about to marry fellow schoolteacher Emily Montgomery (Joan Cusack).

Although Howard’s friends and family are aghast and confused by Cameron’s startling proclamation, they are inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to one of their own. But the frenzied media smell a hot story and descend upon cozy Greenleaf, Ind., to nose out the truth, which puts Howard on the defensive with his uptight principal (Bob Newhart), who can scarcely bring himself to utter the word “gay,” his fiancee and his long-suffering mother (Debbie Reynolds), who is determined to see her son married whether he’s gay or not.

The most persistent and suspicious reporter to track Howard is slick Peter Malloy (Tom Selleck), a hack tabloid-style broadcaster who disarmingly describes himself as “show business garbage” and freely admits that he’s gay. Lurking around town and delivering regular reports of small-town gossip to his large TV audience, Peter finally finds a way, in a very funny scene almost exactly halfway through the movie, to determine the truth about Howard; remainder of the running time is spent dealing with the fallout in the most public and comically contrived manner imaginable.

One of the most genuinely amusing aspects of the second half concerns the arrival in town of Cameron and his spacey supermodel girlfriend (Shalom Harlow). With his dyed blond hair, inarticulate manner and hipper-than-thou ‘tude, Cameron, in Dillon’s witty performance, constitutes a delightful Brad Pitt knockoff, a small-town boy who’s hit it big virtually overnight and returns to set matters straight, so to speak, on a number of fronts.

Beginning with mock excerpts from Cameron’s Oscar-winning vehicle, “To Serve and Protect,” a sendup of both “Platoon” and “A Few Good Men,” in which a dogface finally admits his true feelings about a fellow soldier whose life he saves, there are a number of big laughs in “In & Out,” undoubtedly enough to make general audiences feel they’ve gotten their money’s worth. But instead of five or six out-and-out guffaws, the material seems ripe enough to have provoked two or three times that many, leaving the impression, by the end, of a comedy that’s been decent fun but is somewhat undernourished.

Rudnick and director Frank Oz graft old-school stereotypes of gayness — a taste for musical comedy, fussy neatness, “unmasculine” mannerisms and interests — onto a more politically up-to-date stance about the desirability of honesty and a nonjudgmental mind-set in a manner that all but the most conservative audiences should have no trouble swallowing. Nearly every gag is pitched and underlined in the most obvious way, with punch lines played to the upper balcony.

Still, pic is given a gratifying measure of grace by Kline’s effortlessly light and dextrous performance. A fine dramatic actor, Kline nonetheless always seems most in his element when he’s acting up a bit in comic roles, which is amply illustrated by his work here. As the increasingly discomfited Howard, he underplays some of the easiest laughs, all the better to provoke hilarity with some unexpected outbursts later on. The actor and role fit each other beautifully.

Aside from Dillon, who brightens every scene he’s in, the delightful surprise here is Selleck, who brings wonderfully mischievous, energizing and self-deprecating qualities to the role of the dirt-digging but ultimately on-the-level broadcaster. Cusack also has her moments to shine as the previously overweight bride-to-be who finds herself at the center of unwanted controversy, while the slinky Harlow generates terrific laughs of recognition as the self-centered model who freaks out when confronted with a rotary phone at a small-town motel. Reynolds and Wilford Brimley are somewhat underused as Howard’s mother and father.

Shot largely on Long Island, ably standing in for Indiana, pic boasts spiffy production values.

In & Out

Production

A Paramount release presented in association with Spelling Films of a Scott Rudin production. Produced by Rudin. Executive producer, Adam Schroeder. Co-producer, G. Mac Brown. Directed by Frank Oz. Screenplay, Paul Rudnick.

Crew

Camera (Duart color, Deluxe prints), Rob Hahn; editors, Dan Hanley, John Jympson; music, Marc Shaiman; production design, Ken Adam; art direction, Charles V. Beal; set decoration, Leslie A. Pope; costume design, Ann Roth; sound (Dolby), Danny Michael; associate producer, Suzanne Santry; assistant director, Michael E. Steele; casting, Margery Simkin. Reviewed at Harmony Gold screening room, L.A., Aug. 27, 1997. (In Toronto Film Festival.) MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 90 MIN.

With

Howard Brackett - Kevin Kline
Emily Montgomery - Joan Cusack
Cameron Drake - Matt Dillon
Berniece Brackett - Debbie Reynolds
Frank Brackett - Wilford Brimley
Tom Halliwell - Bob Newhart
Peter Malloy - Tom Selleck
Ava Blazer - Deborah Rush
Ed Kenrow - Lewis J. Stadlen
Walter Brackett - Gregory Jbara
Sonya - Shalom Harlow
Trina Paxton - J. Smith-Cameron
Aunt Becky - Kate McGregor-Stewart
Jack - Shawn Hatosy
Mike - Zak Orth
Vicky - Lauren Ambrose
Meredith - Alexandra Holden
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