Rhetorician

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Film: Fourth Man Out

It was a real delight to catch “Fourth Man Out” last night at the Music Box, screened as the opening film at Reeling, Chicago’s very own LGBTQ international film festival. 

Critic Dennis Harvey noted the film’s “sheer likability” as perhaps its greatest asset,  and I’m inclined to agree. It’s a heartfelt coming out film that unfolds in the context of a super bro-y buddy comedy. Think: fart jokes, but also a genuine attempt by a pack of guys to regroup in the face of a revelation that really does challenge their dynamic. The go-to tools these buddies have for supporting each other when times get tough are decidedly heterosexual: playing wingman at dive bars, discussing hot chicks, occasional wrestling. The challenge of their buddy’s coming out simply does not compute. Because the guys are indeed so likable, and because it’s clear enough that they don’t mean to be homophobic jerks, watching the awkwardness that unfolds makes for a pretty good time. The strong writing and acting helps a lot too. 

The Reeling audience laughed. A lot. At the Q&A with producers and some cast members after the screening, Kate Flannery (from "The Office," who here plays mom), joked that we’d have to watch the movie again, since we were laughing too hard during some of the best lines to be able to hear them. The guy sitting behind me who wouldn’t shut up exclaimed at least twice during the show, “Oh my god I love this movie” — but I’m thinking he’s not exactly a connoisseur, since earlier he had reasoned very much aloud that the beautiful and historic Music Box Theatre in which we sat "must be old" because there were no cup holders. He also remarked that it was strange to see so many people in the (largely queer) audience drinking beer, “like straight people.”

It’s quite possible that “Fourth Man Out” substantially expanded the worldview of that guy, and did so while keeping him completely entertained. That’s a pretty big accomplishment for any film. The protagonist is a gay mechanic who likes watching hockey with his buddies, both before and after his coming out. He has no interest in shifting his tastes to suit the parade of gay stereotypes he tries to date. His coming out is neither tragic nor easy. He lives in Albany. Queer representation on film and TV has come a long way in the last decade, but we still don’t see much of what this movie shows us. Actor Evan Todd, who played the lead bromo, noted in the Q&A that this issue had been part of his interest in making the film. (He also noted that his (real) mom was in the audience —"sheer likability" overload!)

A deeper reflection on the role this film occupies in the unfolding historical narrative of queer representation would be worthwhile. The host of the Q&A called this a kind of gay “When Harry Met Sally,” as it poses the question of whether straight guys and gay guys can really be friends. Evan Todd said he thought the film starts with the assumption that the answer to that question is a definite “yes, of course.” Someone in the audience noted the importance of the “will they kiss” tension in this film. That tension itself has an interesting history, with some scholars arguing that the "gayness" of the men in images of the gay guy/straight girl dyad is itself just a device to maintain what is essentially a heterosexual "delayed consummation" narrative device (in other words, Will & Grace function essentially like Mulder & Scully.) "Fourth Man Out" twists that trope in some new ways, perhaps. 

The movie is certainly self-conscious about the stereotypes it plays with, though it’s exploration of them doesn’t get much beyond sitcom-level depth. Then again, any more sophisticated rumination would feel at odds with the nature of these guys as characters. Plenty of stereotypes are left intact. There are a number of female characters who don’t get to offer anything other than boobs; I don’t suppose the film would pass the Bechdel test. And there’s an awful lot of screen time devoted to white dudes doing very white dude things, though the presence of a few non-white characters with spoken lines still (sadly) means that this film is doing better than many others on that front. It was cool to see the film take so seriously the significance of the ties binding this band of buds, but no matter how important they are allowed to be to one another, their relationships are presented as something meant to take a backseat as hetero- and homo-normative romantic pairings eventually fill their place. In that sense, an opportunity for some more interesting queer world making may have been missed. 

But did I mention how darn likable it is?