Gray Matters, which opens in theaters today, bears none of the hallmarks of the typical lesbian movie — the intense gazes, the acoustic guitar-laden soundtrack, the introspective walks on the beach, the kissing-in-the-rain scene, the overdosing artist. Instead, writer-producer-director Sue Kramer has made a lighthearted trifle of a lesbian film that is in many ways similar to the ’40s movies that our gay heroine Gray loves so much.
There’s lots of fun, fast dialogue; the main characters have old-fashioned dance numbers; the stars are beautiful; and no one dies in the end. That should be enough to make the movie great — and in the pantheon of bad lesbian movies, Gray ranks higher than most — but unfortunately, its convoluted structure, distracting side characters and emotionless pseudo-evolution never allow it to rise past polished mediocrity.
Gray (Heather Graham) is a New York City advertising copywriter who loves Ethiopian food, Truffaut and bantering with her brother, Sam (Thomas Cavanagh), the person to whom she’s closest in the world. But when the single sibs pick up Charlie (Bridget Moynahan), a cute zoologist, in Central Park, things take a turn for the triangle. Both Gray and Sam fall for her, but Sam makes the first move: He proposes to Charlie, and the threesome heads to Las Vegas for the hasty nuptials.
The film gets gay after Gray and Charlie bond during a bachelorette party of sorts — in their hotel bathtub together while drinking champagne (as sisters-in-law will do, naturally). After a momentum-killing, drunken sing-along to “I Will Survive” onstage with Gloria Gaynor, the bombed pair makes out — right before Charlie passes out.
The kiss is Gray’s first hint that she might actually be a lesbian, and she immediately goes into denial, to the point of spitting in disgust. It doesn’t help that when she returns to New York, her dippy therapist, Dr. Sydney (Sissy Spacek), shoves her right back into the closet by telling her she’s not gay, just jealous of her brother. (Did she get her degree from the same school as Dr. Finch from Running With Scissors?)
But after a few comically failed dates with men, Gray seemingly accepts her sexuality and comes out to Sam. Confusion and high jinks ensue, and soon Gray’s love for the ladies is broadcast over the advertising agency’s closed-circuit feed. Now everyone knows that Gray is gay, including top client Julia Bartlett (Rachel Shelley, aka Helena from The L Word, who essentially plays Season 2 Helena — an icy executive).
Gray’s screwball freakout descends from entertaining embarrassment to maudlin Lifetime TV movie when she tells her brother that the reason she’s so upset isn’t that she just outed herself — it’s that she’s sad that when she dies, her partner won’t be respected.
Gray, Kramer’s directorial debut, wins points for its eagerness, enthusiasm, high production values, multiple shots of Bridget Moynahan in lingerie, and its treatment of gayness as an everyday, ordinary thing rather than a major problem.
But unfortunately, the film also traffics in unrealistic, sitcom-like characters and scenarios. At times, it resembles a very special Will & Grace-Gilmore Girls crossover episode, complete with random guest stars. Most of the supporting characters –including Alan Cumming as Gordy, a friendly cabbie-cum-confidante, and Sissy Spacek as Gray’s shrink– are meant to be an insightful chorus, but instead they’re a hindrance to the main plot.
The exception is Molly Shannon as Gray’s co-worker Carrie, who not surprisingly steals every scene she’s in. Her diatribes against Weight Watchers–”I hate fiber. I like Mallomars!”– and in favor of Oprah showcase her superior comedic chops.
Also distracting is Gray’s channeling of Sally from When Harry Met Sally–she has to have her coffee just so, and her martini, and her hot dog. I expect the audience is supposed to register her indecision as endearing. Instead, it’s merely affected, and Heather Graham’s stilted, self-conscious line delivery does nothing to aid the cause.
It is said in moviemaking that every scene should propel the plot, and unfortunately writer-director Kramer doesn’t always follow this advice. There are numerous story lines that go nowhere. A thread about a scheming coworker unravels. Several scenes, including the aforementioned sing-along with Gloria Gaynor and another in which Gray spills coffee on a wedding dress she’s trying on, are needless.
But the worst part is that these scenes distract attention from the main story. Instead of a few more moments of genuine emotional grappling with her sexuality, Gray goes from complete denial of her sexuality.–he tells her shrink that after she kissed Charlie she took 42 showers and went to a church, a temple and a mosque– to complete acceptance in only a few scenes. Kramer, who is straight, seems to understand the political issues of homosexuality but not the emotional ones.
Kramer has tried to update the ’40s movie musical in style, dance and banter, and the brother-sister same-girl crush is a clever twist on the romantic comedy, even the lesbian romantic comedy. With its quick patter and loving tableaux of New York, the film has charm to spare, but ultimately style outweighs substance. All the ingredients of a good movie are there, but the parts just never quite come together.
And despite carefully crafted dialogue, many scenes don’t ring as remotely familiar to the queer viewer. How many of us, when we came out to our siblings, were pondering how society would view our partners upon our deaths?
But suspension of disbelief seems to be what this movie is about, and if that means watching Heather Graham kiss girls and wear suits, so be it. And if a straight female director wants to make a movie about a lesbian who’s not a psycho killer, a deranged stalker, a sperm-seeking earth mother or a repressed schoolmarm — while also looking gorgeous — who am I to complain?