Review: I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry

"Chuck & Larry" (IMDb listing) is a clumsy comedy, made with heartening intentions, but a little wobbly in execution. But you know what? It isn't "Click," and that's something to celebrate.

Larry (Kevin James) is a widowed fireman left with two kids to take care of. His partner in flame is Chuck (Adam Sandler), a distinctly hetero bachelor who is beholden to Larry for saving his life. When his benefit package is threatened, Larry decides that arranging a sham gay marriage to Chuck will solve all his problems. As the new couple on the block, Chuck and Larry find intolerance and judgment everywhere they turn. For Chuck, the charade is especially hard when he falls for their lawyer (Jessica Biel), putting the whole scam at risk for exposure from snoopy outsiders.

"Click" was the film that exposed Adam Sandler's age. A comedy in the loosest sense, the film represented Sandler reaching for that all-powerful four-quadrant success story, pushing syrupy sentimentality to new, exhausting levels. For me, it was the actor's worst film in recent memory, playing hard to the mass audience in a manner that stole away everything that's precious about Sandler's rascally humor. "Chuck & Larry" is the next step in his evolution from frat-house goofball to moral leadership, and the results show a little more restraint.

Perhaps I should address the clumsiness first. "Chuck & Larry" has a lot to say about tolerance, understanding that a majority of the audience probably hasn't been keeping up with "Will & Grace" on DVD, if you catch my drift. The film is playing to the rafters with its lectures on homophobia, religious opposition, and hate speech. The way director Dennis Dugan handles these nuggets of wisdom, you'd think the picture was an after-school special. The "Chuck & Larry" world is very black and white; the film a primer for the average homophobe taking his first steps toward acknowledgment of the gay community. "Hey, if Happy Gilmore says hate is wrong, maybe it is!"

I cheer "Chuck & Larry" for the message of diversity it's sweating hard to convey, but I thank heavens the film actually has some rich ribbons of comedy to help numb the fumbled script. "Chuck & Larry" is actually a return to form of sorts for Sandler, feeling out of the edges of childish absurdity that are comedy gold. While not a free-for-all, the film benefits from a loose atmosphere of jokes and situational comedy that leaves no faux queer stone unturned.

As the happy couple, James and Sandler enjoy a brotherly chemistry, James playing the mama bear while Sandler snuggles into a Brooklyn accent and tries to pass himself off as a man-whore bruiser. The film gets loads of mileage out of their combustible partnership, and it's terrific fun to see the two enjoy the challenge of playing men in love.

Of course, Sandler gets the more juicy part, often paired up with an insanely sexualized Jessica Biel (she is now the screen's greatest Catwoman) to explore his "sisterhood." Chuck's discovery and resentment of his feminine side is a cornerstone of the picture's biggest laughs, and Sandler seems to be having a swell time toying with his image a bit, as Chuck makes peace with his fake identity.

Better still is the cameo-heavy cast, bringing back some of that old Sandler magic by tossing in head-spinning appearances from men of comedy, music, and the gay community. A personal favorite is Ving Rhames, playing a fellow closeted firefighter. Not known for his comedy chops, Rhames is a scream as the freshly-outed love machine, dancing and giggling his way around the film, and making a tiresome shower sequence ripple with unexpected hilarity.

While "Chuck & Larry" had every right to mope into a melodramatic lecture stupor, I was stunned to watch the film resist most of those impulses and keep an eye on the comedy prize. The final act turns into a rather sweet celebration of gay culture and pride, with mainstream bloat for sure, but it remains free from heavy undercurrents of expectation and grim drama. The film won't win any awards for daring and innovative filmmaking, but as a Sandler-certified comedy, it holds attention and provides some worthwhile laughs.

Filmfodder Grade: B