When archeologists attempt to understand the values of a culture, the trash they unearth often provides the most revealing clues. And so, as we approach the dog days of a summer dominated by chicken friction, let us take the pulse of our nation's attitude toward gay Americans by diving into Hollywood's dumpster of late-August releases.
For pure garbage, we need look no further than writer/director/star Dax Shepard's extraordinarily clumsy Hit and Run, co-starring Bradley Cooper and Shepard's off-screen sweetheart Kristen Bell, and opening Aug. 22. Its poster showcases three glowing quotations -- "Ridiculously Funny!"... "The Best Comedy of the Year!"... "The Perfect Comedy Duo!" -- all attributed to the same discerning critic: Chapin Young at MySpace.com. Although I respectfully disagree with Ms. Young, the summer's worst film does showcase an unlikely and enlightened plea for gay tolerance.
In this painfully unfunny "comedy," Bell plays Annie, a professor of conflict resolution who gets dragged into a shoot-'em-up car chase to Los Angeles when her redneck fiancé (Shepard) decides to prematurely leave the Witness Protection Program. Minutes into the film, Shepard's character makes an off-hand remark using the word "fags." The line, much like every other one that precedes and follows it, is witless, and if it appeared in any other mainstream American comedy, it would likely go unnoticed by the other characters.
But astute Annie turns this aside into a teachable moment: "You just said 'fags,'" she says.
"But not in a homophobic way," he attempts to rationalize. "I used it instead of 'lame.'"
"It's used to marginalize gay people," she insists and explains that it's never acceptable to use it. Ever. The exchange is dry, odd, and didactic; you're almost waiting for a monologue in which Bell describes the etymology of "faggot."
When Hit and Run finally ends -- following a nauseating barrage of clichés, car chases, idiotic gags bastardized from The Hangover, and too much Tom Arnold -- Annie is almost ready to forgive Charlie for lying to her and nearly getting her killed. (It should be noted that they owe their lives and this sweet resolution to Pouncer, a fictionalized version of the gay meet-up app Grindr.)
"I'm going to be the exact same person you met for the rest of my life," he tenderly promises.
"But... do you think you could be the same person but not use the word 'fag'?" she responds. We have long forgotten about the dropped F-bomb, but she can't let it go.
It's an unusual moment of moral conviction in an otherwise vapid script. Until Charlie proves himself to be sensitive to the plight of the gays, he's not getting the girl; Annie won't even kiss the lips of a man who utters "fag." Her heroic advocacy recalls Aristophanes' Lysistrata (411 B.C.), in which the title character persuades all the women of Greece to withhold sex from their husbands until they end the Peloponnesian War. Now, 2,423 years later, our fictional warriors are fighting the Culture War, and it's encouraging to see just how far our troops have advanced in the last two years.
In 2010, Vince Vaughn's character in Ron Howard's flop The Dilemma stood up at a meeting and announced, "Electric cars are totally gay." When this line made it into the film's trailer, Anderson Cooper and GLAAD loudly objected, and Universal Pictures eventually recut the preview and omitted the slur.
A year later, Jennifer Aniston's appalling character in Horrible Bosses told her assistant, "You're starting to sound like a little faggot," raising similar concerns. One of the film's writers, Jonathan Goldstein, argued to The Daily Beast that they were intentionally trying to make her appear as vile as humanly possible so that audiences would sympathize with her attempted murderers. The message is clear and severe: If you say the word "fag," people will revile you.
More recently, director Brett Ratner (who produced Horrible Bosses) was slated to produce this year's Oscar telecast, until he told a Los Angeles audience that "rehearsing is for fags" during a question-and-answer session. Within days, he was no longer the producer of the Oscars, and Eddie Murphy, no stranger to homophobic remarks himself during his stand-up years, had resigned as host. An Academy that had famously snubbed Brokeback Mountain in 2006 (in favor of Crash) wanted nothing to do with a homophobic remark.
We've made a sharp turn, and like the cast of Hit and Run, we're speeding toward an inevitable, victorious ending. Channing Tatum's jock-turned-cop in 21 Jump Street (featuring an out, proud, and popular gay high school student) blames Glee for this shift, and its creator Ryan Murphy certainly deserves credit for transforming the zeitgeist. Hollywood has officially put the F-Word (and the pejorative use of "gay") in the company of the N-word; they are forbidden unless you are a member of the community denigrated by the term. Like frustrated racists forced to conform to polite society, homophobes off-screen will have to find more creative and less explicit ways to demean gays.
Hit and Run, with its insurmountable ineptness, should be celebrated as an artifact that marks a turning point in our culture. Those who ignore its reviews and flock to their local malls to see it are the ones who probably need to hear its message the most: Using anti-gay slurs will prevent you from getting laid. Women of America, be bold in this battle, and take Annie's lead!
I can't think of a more effective method to eradicate homophobia.
Follow Zach Udko on Twitter: www.twitter.com/zachudko