Relentlessly juvenile and awash in stereotypes, “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry” is the kind of buddy comedy Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau might have starred in 40 years ago, when the material would have felt less dated, if no less silly. Kevin James and Adam Sandler hardly approach that standard, and it will be slightly depressing if a barrage of schoolyard gay jokes passes for “edgy” a quarter-century after “Victor/Victoria.” Taken for what it is, pic should find its sweet spot somewhere between the easily offended and very easily amused, providing Universal with a modest summer tryst.
Produced by Sandler’s Happy Madison and Tom Shadyac’s Shady Acres shingles, “Chuck and Larry” miscasts Sandler as a ladies man who’s Mr. February on a firefighters calendar, bedding women in multiples of two and four. Hey, it’s nice to be the boss.
In another incongruous pairing, “Sideways” writing team Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor join “Golden Girls” scribe Barry Fanaro and director Dennis Dugan (who previously helmed Sandler’s “Happy Gilmore”). Pic initially plays like a screwball comedy with a bit more smarts, but ultimately, the more banal sitcom impulses win out.
Larry (James) is a widowed firefighter with two kids who discovers that, thanks to bureaucratic red tape, he risks losing his benefits if something happens to him. The improbable solution: Enter into a domestic partnership with his pal and co-worker Chuck (Sandler), leaving the money and kids to him.
Yet after filing the paperwork, the two are advised by a beautiful attorney (Jessica Biel) that such a fraudulent ruse has landed others in considerable trouble, forcing them to prove the charade is real. This puts them in the crosshairs of an obsessive fraud investigator (Steve Buscemi) while rendering them poster children for gay rights, prompting others to keep throwing open their closet doors.
Along the way, the movie repeatedly slips in “Bias is bad” messages among all the gay jokes, including an extended don’t-drop-the-soap-when-showering-at-the-firehouse gag. Forced to forgo sex, meanwhile, Chuck actually begins to develop an adult bond with his unwitting lawyer, which doesn’t stop him from feeling up her boobs in a moment of sisterly bonding.
Dugan is hardly a master of subtlety, and given the limitations of their leads, the producers’ smartest move is to populate the cast with talented supporting players who can milk laughs from the mostly inane setups. Tops among these are Ving Rhames as a fellow fireman and Dan Aykroyd as the fast-talking fire chief.
Buscemi’s cartoonish shtick, by contrast, falls painfully flat, and Sandler’s former “Saturday Night Live” posse (Rachel Dratch, Robert Smigel, plus an uncredited David Spade and Rob Schneider) also turn out in abundance, with Schneider’s caricaturish portrayal of an Asian wedding coordinator possibly the most embarrassing of that sort since Mickey Rooney in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
Again subjected to a parade of fat jabs, James possesses a vulnerable, likable lug quality that served him well in TV as well as in “Hitch.” Sandler’s fans should enjoy hearing him toss off lines about being “big-time fruits” or having “boarded the dude train.” The two also have fun with their relationship, occasionally squabbling like a married couple.
Even the most generous-minded, however, will have their patience tested as the movie overstays its welcome in the extended last act, which can’t be salvaged by a couple thematic cameos by actors including Richard Chamberlain.
With the material pitched so broadly, “Chuck and Larry” clearly hopes not to give offense, which isn’t to say that some gays won’t understandably be put off by it. The movie’s only aim, however, is to ride the “dude train” to happily ever after — a marriage of comedy and commerce that appears unlikely to endure for very long.