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Chance Remark Fuels Satirical ‘In & Out’

TIMES FILM CRITIC

It’s Hollywood’s Night of Nights, but no one’s picking Cameron Drake for the best actor Oscar. With competition like Paul Newman in “Coot,” Clint Eastwood in “Codger,” Michael Douglas in “Primary Urges” and Steven Seagal in “Snowball in Hell,” how could they?

But Drake’s performance in “To Serve and Protect” as a gay soldier betrayed by a copy of “Beaches” discovered in his locker proves the surprise winner. After thanking “my agent and my new agent,” Drake remembers Howard Brackett, his old high school English teacher back in Greenleaf, Ind. An inspiration, he says. “And he’s gay.” Which is big news to everyone back in Greenleaf, especially Howard Brackett and the woman he plans to marry in three days time.

Thought up by producer Scott Rudin after Tom Hanks’ public thanking of a gay teacher when he won best actor for “Philadelphia,” “In & Out” is a comedy of the moment with laughs that last far into the night. Its coolly funny exploration of what that chance remark does to Brackett’s life benefits from a deft collaboration between talents who’ve not always been as successful on screen as they are here.

Screenwriter Paul Rudnick’s previous credits (“Jeffrey,” “Addams Family Values”) haven’t been as consistently funny as the uncredited work he did on films like “First Wives Club” and his stint as fearless Premiere magazine film critic Libby Gelman-Waxner.

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With “In & Out,” however, he’s written sharply satirical lines, taking on not just Oscar night but the O.J. Simpson trial, the Barbra Streisand phenomenon, supermodel bulimia and considerably more. His dialogue is more than funny, it has that rarest of comedic attributes, unpredictability.

Similarly director Frank Oz, after starting with TV’s Muppets, has had an erratic feature career, with some of his best work, like “The Indian in the Cupboard,” being the least appreciated. But his ability to create a warm and genial atmosphere while respecting the bite of Rudnick’s lines keeps “In & Out” balanced between entertainment and relevance.

And while Kevin Kline, who stars as the dazed and confused Brackett, has certainly had successes, he’s rarely had a film role that made such fine use of his remarkable gift for the physical side of farce. With moves that Jim Carrey might envy, Kline is just so as the teacher who has his world turned inside out and then outside in by a former student’s chance remark.

Brackett is introduced just before Oscar night as one of the best-liked men in Greenleaf, “a great big small town.” After a three-year engagement, his forthcoming wedding to former fatty Emily Montgomery (Joan Cusack), who lost 75 pounds in anticipation of the event, delights parents Bernice and Frank (Debbie Reynolds and Wilford Brimley) and causes the basketball team he coaches to break out the champagne.

Then Cameron Drake (Matt Dillon doing a shrewd Brad Pitt imitation) speaks up on Oscar night and Greenleaf goes into shock and searches for explanations. Maybe, one of Brackett’s students theorizes, Drake thought, “Smart, well-dressed, kind of prissy and really clean"--Brackett must be gay. Or maybe the actor was swayed by the teacher’s loyalty to “Funny Lady” and willingness to get into a fistfight over the merits of “Yentl.”

The reporters who make up the national media blitz that invades Greenleaf aren’t interested in these niceties, they just want to corner Brackett for a hot sound bite. Peter Malloy (a relaxed Tom Selleck) seems no different, headlining his weeklong series “A Teacher in Trouble, a Town Under Siege, a Journey to the Heartland.” But Malloy has a secret agenda that more than unnerves the groom-to-be.

One of the pleasures of “In & Out” is its embracing of character comedy. Not only do Dillon, Selleck, Brimley, Reynolds and Bob Newhart (as Greenleaf’s weaselly principal) do expert supporting work, many of the smaller parts, like Shalom Harlow as too-thin supermodel Sonja, are precisely cast as well. And as Brackett’s loyal fiancee, Cusack has the first role in a long time that she can really throw herself into.

Though the film does itself a perhaps inevitable disservice with its ersatz “Mr. Holland’s Opus” ending, overall “In & Out” benefits from the things it has to say about stereotyping and what happens when people are unable to acknowledge who they are. Thoughtful without seeming to be, making jokes that aren’t dumb and dumber, “In & Out” takes itself just seriously enough to be a success.

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* MPAA rating: PG-13 for sexual content and some strong language. Times guidelines: a passionate and playful kiss.

‘In & Out’

Kevin Kline: Howard Brackett

Joan Cusack: Emily Montgomery

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Tom Selleck: Peter Malloy

Matt Dillon: Cameron Drake

Debbie Reynolds: Bernice Montgomery

Wilford Brimley: Frank Montgomery

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Bob Newhart: Tom Halliwell

Shalom Harlow: A model

A Scott Rudin production for Paramount Pictures and Spelling Films. Director Frank Oz. Producer Scott Rudin. Executive producer Adam Schroeder. Co-producer G. Mac Brown. Screenplay Paul Rudnick. Editors Dan Hanley, John Jympson. Costumes Ann Roth. Music Marc Shaiman. Production design Ken Adam. Art director Charles V. Beal. Photography Rob Hahn. Set decorators Leslie A. Pope. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

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* In general release throughout Southern California.


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