“Ideal Home,” a featherweight big-screen sitcom in which Steve Coogan and Paul Rudd play testy romantic partners who wind up as parental caretakers of a 10-year-old boy, is the perfect example of how a movie can be progressive and retrograde at the same time. It’s supposed to feel cutting edge that Coogan and Rudd, who are both terrific actors, adopt a no-big-deal posture toward portraying a gay couple. If only the movie itself were as nonchalant about it! Written and directed by Andrew Fleming, who has had a fluky, hit-or-miss career (“Threesome,” “The Craft”) but built a good comic pedestal for Coogan a decade ago with the dementedly funny “Hamlet 2,” “Ideal Home” is never not painfully aware that its two main characters are gay. It’s a cozy duet of tit-for-tat bitchery that, at times, carries the nagging whisper of a liberal minstrel show.
Instead of treating Erasmus (Coogan), a grandiose monomaniac of a celebrity chef who has his own TV series, and Paul (Rudd), a director of celebrity-chef TV, as characters who happen to be gay, the film puts their sexual identity so front and center, creating such a cliché pile of domestic shade-throwing, that it’s just about the only identity they have.
That’s especially true in the case of Erasmus, who Coogan plays as a camp diva, a louche darling, a (might as well just say it) raging old queen. Coogan long ago cornered the market on characters who are toxically self-absorbed blithe spirits. He’s a middle-aged peacock of acid-witted narcissism, never more so than when he’s doing a literal gloss on himself — in the “Trip” films (those delectable culinary road movies) or his classic segment of Jim Jarmusch’s “Coffee and Cigarettes.” Here’s the problem, though: In “Ideal Home,” Coogan, swanning about in lip rouge and neck kerchiefs, tries to do a gay variation on the same character, but instead of transforming him into a charismatic foil, Coogan’s flouncy sarcastic masochism just makes it seem like he’s starring in a road-company production of “The Boys in the Band.”
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“Back in the ’80s, when I was experimenting,” he tells Paul, “I had a liaison with a woman, which resulted in a baby — yuck! [eyeroll] — which she wanted to keep.” That “yuck!” is a little…yuck, so dated and unnecessary. Erasmus is informing Paul how he wound up with an adult son, which is necessary to explain how Erasmus’s 10-year-old grandson, the freckled, floppy-haired Angel (Jack Gore), has now shown up at the pair’s sprawlingly tasteful Southwestern ranch in the desert outside Sante Fe. Angel’s dad, Beau (Jake McDorman), is a widowed troublemaker who’s been tossed in jail, which means that he can either hand Angel over to Child Protective Services or foist him off on the kid’s grandfather.
Without putting too fine a point on it, the concept, in its Velveeta way, is just musty enough to be faintly, if innocuously, homophobic. As comedy, “Ideal Home” is built around the notion of “Two neurotic gay men as parental figures? What could be more hilariously incongruous?” Not that it’s father/son love at first sight. “Get away from me, you fag!” yells Angel as Paul tries to comfort him. But that all quickly melts away. It’s Paul who steps up to look after Angel like an actual devoted parent, and after taking him on one too many trips to Taco Bell, they forge a bond.
“Ideal Home” features one vintage Steve Coogan moment. Paul says to Erasmus, with prickly incredulity, “You’ve got a grandson?” And instead of trying to explain this startling fact, Erasmus points up to his own face and says, “It’s unbelievable, isn’t it? I mean, look, I’ve had no work done.” Is there another actor who pushes vanity into borderline insanity the way Steve Coogan does? Yet in “Ideal Home,” there’s too much old-fashioned inanity. It’s Rudd who has the “straight” role here — with a chic side-shaved haircut and bushy beard, he grounds the film, giving Paul a snappish gravity and charm that helps balance out Coogan’s lip-pursing hysteria.
The movie is about how these two, stuck in a rut after 10 years together, come to have a new appreciation for their partnership, thanks to the nurturing spirit brought on by Angel. But not before they spend a few scenes screaming at each other, and Paul storms off in a huff to go work for Rachael Ray. “Ideal Home” is a trifle, but more than that it’s caught between eras, poised between wanting to crack you up at what cranky prima donnas its characters are and to make you tear up at the revelation of their normal hearts. The result? A comedy of flamboyant banality.