On the Real

Desperately seeking Others: Holly Hunter and Danny DeVito in Living Out Loud

Living Out Loud
area theaters

Minneapolis College of Art and Design
Saturday at 8 p.m.

Divorced, spiritually starved, straight white Park Avenue socialite (Holly Hunter) seeks rejuvenating boho adventure with authentic Others--preferably a voluptuous black chanteuse (Queen Latifah) eager to play tour-guide through the after-hours scene (including lesbian hot-spots) and/or a down-to-earth Brooklyn guy (Danny DeVito) with Italian-American pizzazz, entrepreneurial spirit, and a love of gambling.

Writer-director Richard LaGravenese might claim Anton Chekhov as his inspiration for Living Out Loud's personal-ad-cum-plot. But the roots of this social fantasy go at least as far back as the Harlem Renaissance, during which time wealthy whites began a tradition of seeking sexual liberation in hip (i.e., gay, black, working-class) places. Call it "The Caucasian Storms Harlem" (as writer Rudolph Fisher termed the phenomenon in 1927). To paraphrase Fisher, I'd willingly sing the praises of this film if I could believe that out of this therapeutic longing some finer thing may come. No such luck, though: Our heroine's multicultural imagination (or the director's, rather) proves not so imaginative at all.

Actually, one needn't stretch back to the '20s to find similar yearnings from unhappy housewives. As a busy screenwriter, LaGravenese (The Mirror Has Two Faces, The Bridges of Madison County, and The Horse Whisperer) has almost single-handedly made the sexual stirrings of aging matrons into a Hollywood cottage industry for the '90s. Here, Hunter plays Judith Nelson, a cardiologist's wife who sacrificed her ambitions and friends for her hubby's career and the accompanying perks of privilege. When the stiff doc (Martin Donovan) abandons her for a younger career woman, Judith must "find the truth about herself" (according to the self-help industry--and the press kit). In Judith's words: "I want to be authentic." Enter torch singer Liz Bailey (Latifah) and elevator operator Pat (DeVito) as bearers of the real.

Sure, compared to the urban-white-male-vigilante tradition (e.g., Falling Down), which reads cultural diversity as a nightmare, this dreamy fantasy looks relatively appealing. But much like The First Wives Club, Living Out Loud substitutes socially smug "sensitivity" for progressive insight. So Judith fulfills her supposedly free-spirited fantasies at a lesbian club called "The Confessional," where she engages in a synchronized dance routine, conveniently sidestepping any lustful overtures and the questions this might raise about her own sexuality. Nor does she need to hash out class dynamics with DeVito's deeply-in-debt but perennially perky Pat, who's there to minister to her emotional and upwardly mobile needs. ("I think it's great when people who have money get jobs anyway," he reassures Judith.) And while it jokes about an oblivious white woman who romanticizes black culture, the film does exactly that itself, with Judith so fetishizing the singer that in one fantasy scene she morphs into Liz. In the end, the mirror has but one face here, and it's the rich white girl's.

Director Chris Chan Lee reflects a much more complicated reality with Yellow, a film that hails itself as "the first ever Asian American youth comedy." (It's screening Saturday at MCAD as part of Asian American Renaissance's monthlong "Cinema of Asian America" series.) Called a "Korean-style Boyz N the Hood" by a Midwestern reviewer responding to the L.A. setting, Yellow follows Sin (Michael Daeho Chung) as he struggles to free himself from his patriarchal pops (Soon-Tek Oh); mediate between his gun-wielding dad and the black customers who patronize the family store; and "prove the worth of his general space-taking existence" (per the Yellow Web site). When Sin is robbed while minding the store, seven of his friends band together to scrounge up the money to protect Sin from having to face his father. Meanwhile, they're embroiled in similar generational struggles with their immigrant parents, a dynamic best enacted by the sarcastic Grace (Angie Suh), whose mother insists that she be "more charming and ladylike."

Lee--himself the son of a Korean-American grocer--offers insight into many facets of the multicultural mirror, extending compassion to parents as well as their kids, and to those on both sides of the convenience-store counter. Essentially, Lee plays with the very notions of authenticity that Living Out Loud treasures. When the underage friends buy liquor with a fake ID, for example, they bank on the white clerk's cultural confusion and fear of appearing racist. ("Can't you tell us apart? Do we all look the same to you? Should I be buying rice, a computer magazine for my night's reading...and Twinkies?")

Many have lauded Yellow as the harbinger of an exciting new era for Asian-American cinema. But the effects of the Living Out Loud mentality threaten to temper that trend's momentum in the mainstream. It should come as no surprise that the Orange County Register compares Yellow--unfavorably--to The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink. And what are the grounds for such judgment? "Lacks authenticity."

For more info about "Cinema of Asian America," call Asian American Renaissance at 641-4040.

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