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Small world, Hollywood. So damnably small (if not downright small-minded) that producers half-crazed by designer-brand seltzer and rampant profit motive are now starting to lift concepts for entire movies from the acceptance speeches of Academy Award winners.

Case in point: The moment Scott Rudin, who's downloaded truckloads of cash from Ransom, The First Wives Club, Clueless and a dozen other monuments to the cinematic art, heard Tom Hanks pay tearful thanks to his gay high-school drama teacher for inspiring him to Oscardom in Philadelphia, a little lightbulb went on in Rudin's head. A very little bulb.

The result, two years and the usual twelve or fifteen million dollars later, is In & Out--a glorified sitcom in which a pouting young matinee idol who's just been handed his first Oscar for playing a gay soldier salutes his former high-school drama teacher. Just in case the locals are not paying attention back in corn country, he adds that the former teacher is, well, gay.

Faster than you can say "Ellen DeGeneres," the citizens of cozy Greenleaf, Indiana, erupt in curiosity and fear over the notion that their very own Howard Brackett--the slightly prissy but ever popular bow-tied, bicycle-pedaling English teacher in their midst--may be of the homosexual persuasion. In fact, Brackett himself is shocked right down to his tan Hush Puppies. Isn't he getting married in three days to his longtime sweetheart, who's lost 75 pounds for the occasion?

Still, for the next hour or so, the ancient is-he-or-isn't-he? issue is batted around like a volleyball en route to the inevitable conclusion that if people would just judge a fellow by the content of his character rather than the flex of his wrist or his penchant for Barbra Streisand, everyone would be a helluva lot better off. Not only that, this genial comedy tells us, there's a good laugh in the whole business if you just know where to look.

In other words, mainstream Hollywood has decided that an anti-machismo take on the subject of sexual preference not only is contemporary, it's cute.

Probably because the cleaning crew is still scraping Robin Williams off the ceiling after his last picture, the reasonable facsimile Kevin Kline inhabits this one. Kline's likable, gentle-of-spirit Howard, a fellow who must ask himself all the questions everybody else is asking about him, is the kind of small-town eccentric a wit like Preston Sturges might have dreamed up in an earlier era. That gives him every opportunity to act out. Listening to a self-help tape for "real men," Howard can't help turning the living room into his personal discotheque. Wobbling up to the altar to join hands with his needy fiancee, Emily (Joan Cusack), he can't resist a catalogue of twitches and tics. Kissed square on the mouth by a predatory (but perky) show-biz reporter played by, of all people, former TV tough guy Tom Selleck, Kline breaks into a little ballet of confused feet, legs and other body parts.

Paul Rudnick's script has its share of jabs and jokes--not least of which is the chance for Matt Dillon to do up the vain Oscar winner "Cameron Drake" as an out-and-out parody of Brad Pitt, right down to the bleached-blond locks, and the chance for all the good, baffled people of Greenleaf to join in a final ritual of goodwill and self-declaration right there in the school auditorium. It's no more convincing an outpouring than the big concert students put on for the self-sacrificial music teacher in Mr. Holland's Opus, but it sure pushes the audience's feel-good buttons all the way back to the balcony. The director here, former Muppeteer Frank Oz, knows how to work a crowd, even if it's in the service of movie-of-the-week emotion.

The comic delights reside in the details. A besieged small-town father (Wilford Brimley) rants about the zillionaire tattletale Cameron Drake: "He used to mow our lawn. Never again." The jilted bride, still in her wedding dress, storms into a local roadhouse and demands a drink. The buttoned-up school principal (who else but Bob Newhart?) fusses, fidgets and fumes.

In the end, this cautionary tale about respecting the instincts of gentle souls feels a bit too cautious itself. It may have gay as a theme, but it's clearly got box office as a motive: That takes some of the fight out of it, if not the fun.

--Gallo

In & Out.
Screenplay by Paul Rudnick. Directed by Frank Oz. With Kevin Kline, Joan Cusack, Matt Dillon, Bob Newhart and Tom Selleck.

 
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