Fey and frisky farce with a fabulous fashion sense artfully balances broadly campy humor and ironically overplayed soap opera while focused on a closeted '50s movie star whose resemblance to Rock Hudson probably isn't coincidental. Small-budget, high-concept indie comedy could easily appeal beyond Queer Cinema niche market.

This review was updated on Mar. 21, 2004.

A fey and frisky farce with a fabulous fashion sense, “Straight-Jacket” artfully balances broadly campy humor and ironically overplayed soap opera while focused on a closeted ’50s movie star whose resemblance to Rock Hudson probably isn’t coincidental. Small-budget, high-concept indie comedy could easily appeal beyond Queer Cinema niche market, but will need savvy handling to maximize crossover potential. Homevid biz could be potent.

Matt Letscher of TV’s “Good Morning, Miami” stars to perfection as Guy Stone, a drolly witty and shamelessly self-involved libertine. Being a hunky Hollywood romantic lead gives him carte blanche to be a love-‘em-and-leave-‘em Lothario — but not quite in the manner his adoring female fans might suspect. Boldly cruising gay bars and other meat markets after dark, he gleefully exploits his celebrity to pick up good-looking studs for casual sex in his lavish bachelor pad.

Given the tenor of the uptight mid-1950s, Guy must keep his secret life very, very secretive. Trouble is, he isn’t always the most discreet of swingers, much to the dismay of Jerry (a Rosalind Russell-channeling Veronica Cartwright), his ever-anxious agent, and Saul (Victor Raider-Wexler), the image-conscious studio chief who wants to cast Guy as the lead in “Ben-Hur.”

When tabloid press reports raise doubts about his hetero status, Guy reluctantly agrees to a sham marriage with Sally (Carrie Preston), a star-struck studio secretary who knows nothing about his true orientation. But even as he benefits from favorable fan-mag coverage of his “ideal marriage,” and Sally turns a blind eye to the queer guy’s secret life, the closeted star finally finds the first true love of his life: Rick Foster (Adam Greer), a boyishly handsome, left-leaning author whose book about striking coal miners is the improbable basis of Guy’s latest star vehicle.

Adapting his own play, writer-director Richard Day (“Girls Will Be Girls”) makes little effort to “open up” the material for cinematic purposes. Indeed, Day underscores the stagebound origins of “Straight-Jacket” by directing most of his players to give theatrically stylized performances while cavorting on transparently artificial sets. (Exteriors of Guy’s posh Hollywood mansion are unmistakably, and quite amusingly, CGI special effects.) Scene in which Guy proposes to blissfully surprised Sally is a single, seven-minute take, fluidly lensed by Michael Pinkey, that appears lifted intact from the original stage production.

“Straight-Jacket” gets easy laughs from Sally’s clueless reactions to Guy’s divinely splendid home furnishings — she simply replaces the more outrageous furniture and decor with items from Sears — but refrains from turning her into a mere object of ridicule. Indeed, pic takes pains to emphasize Guy’s misgivings about the ruse.

It helps a lot that Preston (repeating role she created in the 2000 off-Broadway production of “Straight-Jacket”) is sweetly engaging in her perky naivete. But it helps even more that Letscher, who’s smoothly persuasive and exceptionally funny during Guy’s more selfish moments, is equally convincing when he evidences glimmers of empathy and decency.

Skewering two witch-hunts with the same pic, Day takes aim at McCarthy-era red-baiting as well as gay-bashing. Rick (played sincerely but a tad stiffly by Greer) is infuriated when the studio chief orders script rewrites that turn his populist pro-labor scenario in a borderline-fascist, pro-management tract. But the chief is simply responding to pressures by a congressional investigator who’s hunting for red influences in Hollywood. Climax involves a televised hearing in which “homosexual communists” are targeted, but just deserts are served.

Despite budgetary limitations, Mark Worthington and Kristen McCarron’s brightly and cheerily colorful production designs enhance the pic. Musical score by Steve Edwards hits the right notes of sharp satire and period-specific accuracy.

Among supporting players, Michael Emerson is a standout as Victor, Guy’s slyly sardonic, Southern-accented butler. Latter is genuinely surprised when he learns Guy’s new lover is a writer. “Usually,” he dryly quips, “Mr. Stone’s friends don’t speak of books. Unless they want to color.”

Straight-Jacket

Production

An SRO Pictures production. Produced by Michael Warwick. Co-producer, Andrew Trosmans. Written, directed by Richard Day.

Crew

Camera (FotoKem color), Michael Pinkey; editor, Chris Conlee; music, Steve Edwards; production designers, Mark Worthington, Kristen McCarron; set decorator, Katherine Leblond; sound (Dolby), Dan Zimbaldi; casting, Irene Cagen, Liberman-Patton. Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (Emerging Visions), Austin, Texas, March 15, 2004. Running time: 96 MIN.

With

Guy Stone - Matt Letscher Sally - Carrie Preston Rick Foster - Adam Greer Jerry - Veronica Cartwright Saul - Victor Raider-Wexler Victor - Michael Emerson Freddie - Jack Plotnick Jeroen - Adrien Neil Ray - David Burke Tour Guide - Sam Pancake
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