He's Mr. Chips. He's George Bailey. He's Mr. Holland. But is he gay?
All you need to know is that he's Kevin Kline, in all his impish, charismatic glory: Kevin Kline in "Dave" mode, with a little of the sputter of "A Fish Called Wanda." As Howard Brackett, a literature teacher in a tiny Indiana town who is "outed" during a former student's Oscar speech, he conveys a winsome likability, frustration and vulnerability without ever being maudlin. He is wonderfully funny.
Of course, Howard is outed the week of his wedding, and therein lies the comedy. He not only has to fend off a tabloid press including a TV reporter (Tom Selleck), mollify his suspicious principal (Bob Newhart) on the eve of graduation, and put his parents (Debbie Reynolds and Wilford Brimley) at ease; he has to convince his fiancee (Joan Cusack) that he's a "Macho Man." (The Village People song is used to great comic effect.)
She's easy to convince, however -- too easy, really, because her entire identity has been based on approval from other people, namely Howard. She's a poster child for low self-esteem, an "Oprah" show waiting to happen. Having lost serious weight through nearly lethal doses of Richard Simmons videos during ++ her chaste, three-year engagement, she's clad herself in the wedding dress Howard picked out and will not be deterred from the aisle.
Cusack, almost always a supporting player, carries this leading role with a manic verve, bouncing from good-natured sympathy to furious hysteria without letting her character's obvious pathology overtake her performance.
Meanwhile, Howard is struggling with the revelation by his student-turned-movie-star (Matt Dillon). He's suddenly riddled by doubts about his sexuality and even listens to a self-help tape to help him feel more manly.
What could be more virile than getting into a brawl over whether Barbra Streisand was too old to play "Yentl"?
He's obviously conflicted. The wedding approacheth. He panics. And you thought Jerry Maguire was afraid of commitment!
The most subtle, pleasing thing about "In & Out" is that, no matter which team Howard ends up playing on, we're introduced to him as a person first: a lovable guy, the kind of teacher you would have died for in high school, the kind of pal you want to have a beer with.
"In & Out" recalls John Hughes' best work, the funny teen character studies "Sixteen Candles" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," before he descended into the "Home Alone" spiral. That's a high compliment to "In & Out" screenwriter Paul Rudnick ("Jeffrey," "Addams Family Values") and director Frank "Yoda" Oz.
Smart and sweet with a delightful sense of the absurd, "In & Out" tweaks its small-town stereotypes enough to make them deliciously daffy while delivering generous laughs.
'In & Out'
Starring Kevin Kline and Joan Cusack
Directed by Frank Oz
Released by Paramount
Rated PG-13 (mature theme, one strong curse word)
Sun score: ***
Pub Date: 9/19/97