If they ever make a sequel to “The Celluloid Closet” — the landmark doc about the history of LGBT representation on-screen — Lukas Gage should warrant at least two mentions. First, there’s the scene from the first season of “The White Lotus” where Jake Lacy barges into the resort manager’s office, only to find Gage getting his salad tossed (a history-making moment for gay TV fans). And now there’s “Down Low,” an over-the-top, bottom-trawling comedy that wants to be for the gay community what “The Hangover” was to the mainstream — which is to say, wildly irreverent and incredibly wrong.
Starring openly gay “Heroes” villain Zachary Quinto as Gary, a recently divorced, richie-rich zaddy hoping for a happy ending, “Down Low” doesn’t quite understand its own title — code within the Black and Latino community for men who consider themselves straight while having sex with other men — but that’s OK. Hopelessly shallow “Down Low” is still light-years ahead of mainstream movies (including last year’s “Bros”) as debuting feature director Rightor Doyle delivers what an entire contingent of queer audiences have been asking for all their lives: namely, a comedy that’s as raunchy and inappropriate as the jokes they make among themselves.
Like “Pretty Woman” on meth, the movie comes laced with pop-culture references, ranging from “The Real Housewives” to “Sex and the City 2,” and features gay icons Judith Light and Simon Rex (still very much in skeezy “Red Rocket” mode). “Down Low” knows its audience and is refreshingly uninterested in looking the slightest bit respectable. That much is clear from the opening scene, as Doyle projects the film’s title over an explicit silhouette of Gary getting a hand job from a handsome, gum-smacking masseur — that would be Gage’s Cameron, a proactively sex-positive twink who finds it kinda endearing that this is the first time Gary has ever let another dude touch him down there.
Once Gary admits his inexperience, Cameron makes it his mission to help the guy out, logging on to a Grindr-like hookup app to find a stud for them to enjoy together. Right off the bat, there’s a key difference between “Down Low” and “Bros”: Instead of trying to explain things to the straight community, Gage (who co-wrote the script with Phoebe Fisher, fully intending to star) assumes that horny gay men have let their hormones steer them into some pretty outrageous situations, so the key appeal here is knowing that however regrettable your worst experience may have been, it doesn’t hold a candle to the unbelievably traumatic initiation Gary has in store.
Posting a photo of Cameron’s abs under the name “Lad and Dad,” the pair quickly succeed in luring a playmate who insists he’s straight (Sebastian Arroyo) over to Gary’s lakefront mansion. If any of the characters in “Down Low” are on the DL, it’s this guy. Meanwhile, Gary’s pretty open about his own sexuality — his ex-wife Patty (Audra McDonald) saw to that, sending custom-printed cards to all their friends with the news. Quinto seems a smidge young and a bit too stiff for the role, which would have been even funnier (but clearly impossible) with a Kevin Spacey type.
In any case, Gary’s first threesome takes a turn for the worse when their guest gets aggressive, charges Cameron and accidentally falls out the second-story window. Now, instead of a life-changing treat, they’ve got a dead trick on their hands, as the film takes a turn into very dark, “Very Bad Things” territory. While dragging the body indoors, Gary gets a visit from Sandy (Light), a nosy Christian neighbor. She’s a kooky addition to the mix who’s mostly there for laughs, but has a few awkward affirmations to share as well. It’s a running theme through the film that everyone’s fine with Gary’s sexuality except for Gary, and by the time it’s over, he’ll have loosened up enough to lose his virginity.
Sandy’s high enough on Ambien to be oblivious to their suspicious behavior, but eventually stumbles across the corpse while looking for the bathroom. For a minute, you might assume she’ll wind up dead as well, but this farce isn’t that cruel. Instead, the movie lets Sandy lock herself in the closet for the next few hours, then forgets about her as Cameron and Gary turn their attention back to the bigger mess on their hands. For some reason, they decide to find a specialist on the Dark Web to come collect the body. Enter Rex’s “Flesh Puppet,” a necro-romantic with a very specific fetish. (Hint: It turns him on to hear that Gary has less than one month to live.)
That’s right, as if the movie weren’t weird enough already, come to find that Quinto’s character has an inoperable brain tumor — which goes a long way toward lowering his inhibitions and explains all three of the borderline-inept montages in this otherwise slick-looking movie. Early on, there’s the trying-too-hard makeover sequence in which Lad and Dad try on most of Patty’s wardrobe. Montage No. 2 plays like a pseudo-music video, after Flesh Puppet whips out the crack pipe and the trio bliss out to Vincint’s “Higher.” And finally, there’s Gary’s first time, which is supposed to be sexy, but instead looks like some badly edited, skin-baring cologne commercial.
Good that he gets his happy ending, at least. Doyle cuts from there to the movie’s fittingly irreverent epilogue, in which we meet the family Gary upended when he came out. Thin as their script has been until now, Gage and Fisher are still generous enough to write Patty a big scene, before tasking Cameron with one last corpse disposal (this one has a divine payoff, making for an unforgettable last shot). As edgy as Doyle intends for his debut to be, the movie’s got a surprisingly sentimental center. He and Gage want gay men — especially those of a certain generation — to overcome their shame and embrace their true selves, to which “Down Low” says: Better late than never.