Mark Harris looks at the varying treatment of gays in ''South Park,'' ''Summer of Sam,'' and ''Wild Wild West''

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Homosexuality takes a hit in three major summer movies

To celebrate Gay Pride Month, the movie industry has given audiences a wide array of enlightened portrayals of homosexuality in recent weeks. Just march over to your local megaplex and savor the entire rainbow of options. You can watch ”Wild Wild West” and see Will Smith and Kevin Kline get all jittery at the prospect of having to touch each other. You can check out Spike Lee’s ”Summer of Sam” and watch the film’s bisexual character get beaten to a pulp. Or you can see ”South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut” and get an intimate look at the bedroom activities of our two newest gay role models, Satan and Saddam Hussein. Gee, thanks, Hollywood — you sure know how to make a fella feel welcome.

It’s a gross irony (in a summer better known for ironic grossness) that the only one of the above films that gay moviegoers don’t have to feel insulted by is the spectacularly filthy ”South Park” — the very subtitle of which is a gay-porn joke insiderish enough to have flitted over the heads of the MPAA.

Yes, Satan and Saddam are strange bedfellows whose sex lives, complete with dildos, self-help books, and squishy sound effects, are mined for every smutty laugh that can be had. But say this for creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone: They’re the only filmmakers this year who put their gay characters on a completely level playing field with their straight ones. Parker and Stone find pretty much anything that can be done to, put in, emitted by, or ignited from an orifice — any orifice — funny, without regard to race, creed, or sexual orientation. (Well, actually, with a great deal of regard to all three, but without favoritism.) Besides, any movie that demonstrates such fluid and encyclopedic knowledge of musical theater has got to have its heart in the right place.

Spike Lee has his heart in the right place too — it’s this often brilliant filmmaker’s head that sometimes gets lodged in his own nether regions. In ”Summer of Sam,” he gives us a compellingly sympathetic bisexual character, a gentle-souled Brit-punk wannabe named Richie (Adrien Brody) who makes ends meet by stripping in a gay club — and occasionally turning tricks with its sleazy old customers. When word gets out, he gets pounded.

The gay-bashing-is-bad message is there, but it feels more like Lee’s swipe at a favorite target — the Italian-American tribalists who are doing the bashing — than an endorsement of Richie’s freedom of sexuality. Especially since Lee can’t seem to decide whether those gay-club trysts are a symptom of Richie’s appetite for sexual experimentation or of the degree to which he’ll debase himself for money. Thoughtful ambiguity is one thing; this feels more like a filmmaker’s own uncertainty and wariness. He can do better.

That leaves us with ”Wild Wild West,” and to pick on this movie for being homophobic is to cite the least of its sins. But let’s note briefly the egregious scene in which Jim West (Smith) and Artemus Gordon (Kline), yoked together by magnetic flea collars (or some such idiocy), get skittish and swaggery because their male bodies are rubbing malely against each other and it might look like they’re… THAT WAY.

There are 50 years of whiskers on this gag, and time hasn’t ripened its wit. In a summer when even Adam Sandler has managed to surprise his frat-boy constituency with a pointedly pro-gay reference in ”Big Daddy,” there’s no excuse for such nonsense. Smith, who infamously vetoed a same-sex kiss in his last serious acting role, in ”Six Degrees of Separation,” should know better by now. Instead, he’s moving forward with plans to star in ”I Now Pronounce You Joe and Benny,” a comedy about two firefighters pretending to be gay. Not to prejudge, but: Ugh.

This is the point at which I’m supposed to recommend something like ”trick.” ”Trick” is this year’s ”Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss,” a gay indie in which the romance between an aspiring show-tune composer and a male stripper is fairy-godmothered by a drag queen and a weepy, blobby middle-aged cabaret singer who, in a three-minute-long subplot, falls back in love with his weepy, blobby middle-aged boyfriend because, gosh darn it, people who look and sound like Stuart Smalley are allowed to be gay too, as long as we can dispatch them really quickly and get back to looking at the go-go boy. Show queens, crybabies, and strippers: To quote Meryl Streep in the honorary gay movie ”Postcards From the Edge,” ”These are the options?!?” Keep ”trick.” Instead, give me Big Gay Al singing ”I’m Super” — preferably at next year’s Oscars.

Big Daddy
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  • PG-13
  • Dennis Dugan