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A farcical (but tame) take on friends with benefits

Adam Sandler (left) and Kevin James play straight firefighters who feign marriage for domestic- partner benefits in 'I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.' Adam Sandler (left) and Kevin James play straight firefighters who feign marriage for domestic- partner benefits in "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry." (TRACY BENNETT/UNIVERSAL)

In "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry ," Adam Sandler and Kevin James play Brooklyn firemen who feign marriage to each other for the domestic-partner benefits. The city won't let James just make his two kids his beneficiaries. This sounds like the kind of American travesty Michael Moore could use for his next movie. He could even recycle an old title: "Sicko."

Broad and badly made but sporadically inspired, "Chuck and Larry" is still an amazing improvement over "License to Wed," this month's other wedding comedy. But the movie seems tame, when it really could have subversively brought the house down.

Sandler's flamboyantly straight Chuck goes to Ontario to wed and moves into Larry's house, where his discomfort with the arrangement vanishes. He helps cook the meals, raise the kids, and shares a bed with Larry. Outside a costume ball, he stands up to picketing bigots and discovers his being with Larry means he's perceived as a "chubby chaser" (a guy who prefers a few extra pounds in his men). He embarks on a girls' day with Hollywood's favorite prop, Jessica Biel (amiably playing the sexy lawyer defending Chuck and Larry against a possible fraud charge), and consoles a supermacho firefighter who's inspired by Chuck and Larry's love to out himself.

Eventually, the very idea of what gay means seems up for grabs -- momentarily. Only when Sandler, who has never been less deranged , and James, who's actually very good, are domesticating does the movie seem comfortable with itself.

Otherwise, "Chuck and Larry" is torn between shouting down homophobia and asserting its own hetero urges (those generous shots of Biel's rump; an entire scene of her in panties, bra, and heels; Sandler feeling her up at her request).

Despite parts for Dan Aykroyd and Steve Buscemi, the film is often too self-conscious to be truly gangbusters, which is too bad since no one says anything revealing or self-reflective. This is a film in which people are content not to talk about their feelings, which is odd since two-thirds of the surviving script is credited to Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor , the men who wrote "Sideways ," "About Schmidt ," and "Election ." (The other third goes to Barry Fanaro. ) Payne and Taylor are the Chuck and Larry of semi-satire, and somehow the ambivalent tone of their own movies has crept past Dennis Dugan's fumbling direction and into this one.

The stress falls on visual gags, jokes about James's weight, and the sort of crudeness we have come to expect from a Sandler vehicle (see James pull his little girl out of the toilet). There's a Three Stooges-load of slaps and the usual gay clichés: Larry's young son (Cole Morgen ) is a flaming theater queen, who seems to have fallen out of a Mel Brooks movie. So do Ving Rhames , whose inconsistent mincing is amusing, and Nick Swardson , as Biel's fratty-queeny brother.

The rest of the movie doesn't have what it takes for Brooks's kind of farce. It needs abandon. It needs a musical number. It needs the kiss from "Y Tu Mama Tambien ." Where is the Mel Brooks of now? The film is bridled and uncomfortable. Like so many other Hollywood movies, "Chuck and Larry" has a limited idea of gayness, even as it preaches for homosexuals. Gay is still signified and performed as opposed to lived. Liberation still means singing some diva's anthem (here it's Chaka Khan's "I'm Every Woman " in the communal firehouse shower.) Larry's son even coins a new exclamation: "Fabulicious." A lot of this is funny, but it's also exasperatingly stale.

Yet, "Chuck and Larry" is too disarming to hate. In fact, it hates hate. The movie is often stupid. But coming from an industry institutionally terrified of being honest about its own sexuality, it feels brave, going a step further than "not that there's anything wrong with that." Everyone involved can feel good about the public-service manual they've made: "Gay-Friendly for Dummies."

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/ movies/blog.

'Related'

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry

Directed by: Dennis Dugan

Written by: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor, and Barry Fanaro

Starring: Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Jessica Biel, Ving Rhames, and Steve Buscemi

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 110 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (crude sexual content throughout, nudity, language, and drug references)

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