Times Staff Writer

THE images in “Blades of Glory” are provocative: Will Ferrell, as a rough-and-tumble macho, and Jon Heder, as the pastel-wearing girlie man, feign romance on the ice as a figure skating pair. They lock legs and hold hands, bump and grind and plant their faces in each other’s crotch. It’s hilarious and unsettling: The joke, which deftly avoids gay baiting, is on straight men.

Straight men and male bonding, it turns out, make for far richer comic ground these days. “Blades of Glory,” which opens Friday, may start with a predictable setup: The male pair in the operatic world of figure skating must be gay! But the humor is more nuanced than that. Homosexuality is noted, but only in passing. Ferrell’s Chazz Michael Michaels and Heder’s Jimmy MacElroy are ultimately lonely guys and sworn rivals who bond as brothers when forced together. Their performances are inherently homoerotic. But they bicker and fight like adolescents, killing much of the potential for innuendo.

There was a time, as impossibly long ago as it now seems, when two straight American men could go skinny-dipping or even share a bed without having to rip out their chest hair or yell like Tarzan afterward. But today, as deciphering someone’s sexual orientation becomes a national pastime and acceptance of homosexuality reaches an all-time high, images of straight guys acting “gay” abound in movies, TV and advertising.


Of course, the straight guy and the gay innuendo is an ancient gag. Every generation gives it a try, from the antics of Laurel and Hardy to Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon to that passionate kiss shared by Ashton Kutcher and Seann William Scott in “Dude, Where’s My Car?”

The difference now is the context. Sexual identity is more of a public and political issue than it’s ever been with the gay marriage movement and the stream of images of gay men kissing that have accompanied it. At a time of war, we see images of traditional masculine heroes, and yet there’s the whole “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” aesthetic that confounds straight guys at every turn. Hence, the absurdity in Ferrell’s “Blades” character -- a metrosexual if there ever was one. He’s a straight “sex addict” who parades around bare-chested in a turban and leopard print towel and religiously brushes his hair 100 times each night with a $12,000 handmade brush.

Another sendup in a series

FERRELL has spent his career riffing on macho stereotypes, including NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby in “Talladega Nights” and TV news anchor Ron Burgundy in “Anchorman.” In the upcoming “Semi-Pro,” he plays a professional basketball player/coach/team owner in a 1970s-era American Basketball Assn. who refuses to acknowledge that his wife is sleeping with the entire league.

“He sort of embodies the false solution, but he does it with a nudge and a wink, ever since he was the male cheerleader on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ ” said “Manhood in America” author Michael Kimmel, a sociology professor at State University of New York at Stony Brook. “He plays the feckless ne’er-do-well who can’t quite get it together. Then he becomes hyper-masculine and aggressive, and that’s even more ridiculous. And finally he finds some balance in the middle.”

Filmmakers and actors depicting these scenes say the punch line isn’t rooted in the gay man -- it’s the straight American male struggling with intimacy and emotion while stuck in some retro notion of manliness.

“I still think that we’re very much dealing with the whole macho thing,” said Ferrell. “That’s why I think it’s so easy to make fun of. I don’t think we’re really that evolved.”

If audience reactions can be believed, there’s nothing more laughable or downright discomfiting than watching “manly” men cringe and squirm after an encounter with their soft side. And the examples grow more ridiculous by the moment. They wrestle nude (“Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan”) or rub backsides and sing about “Guy Love” (NBC’s “Scrubs”) or accidentally kiss (Super Bowl Snickers ad) or snuggle up on an air mattress (“Wild Hogs”).

All this comes in the aftermath of the women’s movement, which so discombobulated men that for a time, great hordes of them escaped to the woods to beat their chests and share their feelings. Today, two straight men can’t even share a bottle of wine at a restaurant alone without the act itself being declared some sort of Zeitgeist. Straight men! Dining as a pair! But then, masculine identity has been in transition for a while now -- since the Industrial Revolution, according to some historians.

“Homophobia is to straight men in America what sexism was to us 20 years ago,” said author Kimmel. “It’s the thing we’re bumping up against everywhere we look. We’ve gotten used to women in the soccer field, in the press room, in the locker room, every profession. Now it’s kind of made us look at why we want to be around each other so much. I think something’s up.”

So in other words, the time is ripe for a little levity on the subject. But comedy in this arena is a tricky business. Just ask the folks at Masterfoods USA who pulled the Snickers Super Bowl ad after gay rights groups complained (though the ad quickly became a hit on YouTube). In the ad, two mechanics accidentally kiss while rapturously eating a candy bar, then, mortified, rip out their chest hair to prove their manliness.

“Humor,” Masterfoods USA spokeswoman Alice Nathanson said, “is subjective.”

“Blades of Glory” largely works by lampooning the whole manly/nonmanly thing as utterly irrelevant. Brothers Jeff and Craig Cox, who were the screenwriters along with John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky, came up with the story four years ago after watching a figure skating routine on TV. They said they rooted the comedy in the characters and deliberately avoided making either one gay. In fact, they modeled the dynamic between Michaels and MacElroy on their own childhood sibling rivalry.

“Jimmy is like the younger brother to Chazz just like I am to Jeff,” said Craig Cox, 27. Jeff is 30. “Their arguments are very immature ... like a 12-year-old and a 9-year-old would have.”

There is a moment in the film after Michaels and MacElroy team up when their sexual orientation is questioned. It’s addressed with quick man-on-the-street interviews. A vendor holds up a hot dog bun with two hot dogs nestled side by side. “Does that look right to you?” he asks. A slightly built figure skater says: “As if figure skating wasn’t gay enough already!” When the men take the ice as a pair for the first time, a wolf whistle floats over the crowd. Audience members look puzzled. Then the skaters land several incredibly difficult moves, which although suggestive, demand serious ability. The crowd cheers.

“They are athletes first and foremost,” said Ferrell. “And yet they do allow themselves, in the middle of these competitions, to step back and go, ‘Wow. This is weird. What are we doing?’ And then they step right back into it and go, ‘Wait, there’s a big spin coming up. I love skating!’ ”

It’s their drive to win that ultimately overshadows all the other issues, a passion so consuming that they’ll endure the humiliation of performing together.

“They’re classic rivals and really don’t like each other,” said Josh Gordon, who directed the film with Will Speck. “What that allows us to do is play that line of a very uncomfortable subject. A lot of the comedy exists in that nexus. They never really go too far in one direction. They’re unwilling participants in this sort of effeminate situation.”

The movie teases out that effeminate situation for all it’s worth. MacElroy and Michaels are forced to live together while they train. In one scene, they exchange hair-care tips. In another, they don tutus and leotards and cascade around a dance floor. That is until Michaels shoves a guy for getting too close.

“They ultimately have to be brothers and this weird couple,” said Gordon. “At the same time, they have to make it OK for you.”

It’s not an easy line to walk.

Going down that same road

THE new Buena Vista comedy “Hogs” attempts another male bonding story -- suburban guys in midlife crisis on a cross-country motorcycle trip -- but much of its humor is about straight guys being mistaken for gay.

John Travolta’s alpha dog Woody is often paired with the more delicate computer geek bachelor Dudley, played by William H. Macy. In one scene, Dudley longingly sniffs the cologne off Woody’s neck and Woody threatens to kill him if he does it again. In other scenes, a flamboyantly gay state trooper catches them sleeping together and skinny-dipping and tries to join in. By the end, all these scenarios have drawn the men closer as friends.

“It’s four grown men discussing things in honest, intimate ways, which doesn’t happen as much as it should in the real world,” producer Mike Tollin says of the film in production notes. “But most of all, it’s just plain funny.”

Some critics were turned off.

“It’s ... hard to recall a recent movie so desperate to convince you of its heterosexual bona fides,” wrote Scott Renshaw in the Salt Lake City Weekly.

“Studio product once ridiculed homosexuals outright,” wrote Dennis Harvey in Variety. “Now it goes the more insidious route.”

Men’s identities are clearly in transition, and it’s all being filtered through our entertainment. To show how tricky matters can become in a hyper-aware culture: The makers of the smash comic-book-based war film “300” have noted that their film has been accused, simultaneously, of being homoerotic and homophobic. And it was only a matter of time before one of Tony Soprano’s henchmen, Vito Spatafore, turned up in a gay leather bar, as happened on last season’s “The Sopranos” on HBO.

On FX’s “Nip/Tuck,” womanizing plastic surgeon Christian Troy spent an entire season in the throes of an identity crisis, questioning his sexuality, working it out in therapy and distancing himself from his best friend and business partner, Sean McNamara. Ultimately, he realized he was experiencing a sort of familial love for a good male friend. Creator Ryan Murphy has called the show “a heterosexual love story between two men.”

“The fact that gay people are more visible in people’s lives problematizes their relationships with other men,” says “Manhood in America” author Kimmel. “The more the visibility of gay people in American life -- which I consider a great benefit for straight men as well as gay men -- the richer and fuller straight men’s lives will become. You can see that you can express all kinds of feelings, all kinds of emotions. You become safer and more secure in your identity.”