ROLE/PLAY – DVD review

“Role/Play” is a gay-interest film, and I feel as if I should offer up the disclaimer that I am not, myself, gay. But I don’t believe you have to be in order to review a film like this, any more than I think that only critics with a seaman’s background can comment on “Moby-Dick.”

The English man of letters Samuel Johnson once told a writer, who had asked for his opinion, “Your manuscript is both good and original, but the part that is good is not original and the part that is original is not good.”

I remembered that famous quote as I considered “Role/Play,” which struck me as being both stiff and limp. Unfortunately, it’s the dialog that’s stiff, and the love scenes that are limp.

The buttocks may be different, but I can recognize the same codes and tropes from plenty of “nudie” films I watched as a young man transitioning from National Geographic magazine to something a little closer to my world. But of course the films were nothing of the sort. They were fantasies that featured nude or sex-scene episodes connected by the thinnest possible narrative threads, and the same holds true for Rob Williams’ latest effort.

Williams has been writing, producing, and directing his own gay-themed films since he broke in with “Long-Term Relationship” in 2006. “Back Soon” (2007) followed, as did “3-Day Weekend” (2008), and “Make the Yuletide Gay” (2009). In “Role/Play” he gives the gay community a fantasy scenario set at an exclusive, Palm Springs resort where clothing seems to be optional, despite the owner’s protests. Here, two main characters meet: a soap opera actor who recently lost his job when a gay sex tape surfaced, “outing” him, and a gay marriage activist who was recently divorced. Neither is attached and both are famous, so the fact that they seek solace at this gay-friendly hideaway kind of makes sense. So does the fact that they hook up.

Graham Windsor (Steve Callahan, “Nine Lives,” “Make the Yuletide Gay”) is the soap star who, for the first few sequences, walks around naked and dips into a gorgeously lit pool, also sans suit. He even stands in the kitchenette pouring coffee buck naked, and I have to say that it’s the first time I’ve seen anyone tense his butt cheeks while pouring coffee. I personally haven’t found those muscles necessary to serving up the ideal cup, but what do I know? Well, enough, actually, to spot contrivances–especially the dull dialog that turns up throughout the film.

Neither Callahan nor his co-star Matthew Montgomery (as activist Trey Reed) seems terribly into his lines–though Williams at least tries to insert some manner of relevance by having that dialog encapsulate apparently hot issues within the gay community. We get debates about “coming out”–Is it a gay man’s responsibility to do so, or his right to do what feels germane to his situation?–and whether gay media should be more tolerant of gay public figures than, say, Fox News. But the lines only serve to remind us that these two are actors, and I never found myself forgetting that.

Worse, neither of the stars seems particularly turned on by the other in the bedroom scenes where one lies naked on top of his naked counterpart. The camera never shows either’s public area, but they’re obviously comfortable enough with the groin-to-groin physical contact. Still, I didn’t sense much chemistry. It all played out in familiar fashion, with the pool scenes perhaps saving the day because everything looks so gorgeous and inviting–even to a straight male. Why, if I mentally substituted a few different buttocks, it’d be my kind of retreat, too. But as rich and full as this picture looks, the lines and the wooden deliveries make “Role/Play” ring just a little hollow. The very most I could give a film like this would be a 5 out of 10, and I’d do that because of the attempt to insert relevance into an otherwise skin-oriented film about a hook-up with little else in the way of character development. And at least Williams’ script forces both characters to examine their lives through the eyes of the other.

In fairness, after I wrote up my response I decided to check Rotten Tomatoes, and while no critics have tackled the films, 64 percent of the audience said they liked Williams’ “Make the Yuletide Gay,” while at the Internet Movie Database it earned a comparable 6.1. Forty-three percent of the Rotten Tomatoes audience liked “Back Soon,” which received only a 5.5 at imdb.com. And 54 percent took to “Long-Term Relationship,” which scored a 6.4 at imdb.com. “Role/Play” hasn’t been rated yet by Rotten Tomatoes, but at imdb.com it only merited a 5.1 from the 56 viewers who watched the film and bothered to vote. I did note that reviewers from CinemaQueer.com (where there are more screenshots) and GayCelluloid.com (where there’s a trailer) gave more favorable reviews–though the latter called the dialog “preachy” and likened it to “sermons.”

If so, nothing will break the monotony for the intended audience like Callahan and Montgomery appearing in the buff frequently throughout the film–both, with classically chiseled bodies and the inclination to walk or pose like male models.

“Role/Play” also stars David Pevsner, Brian Nolan, Matthew Stephen Herrick, and Jim J. Bullock.

Video:
Palm Springs and gay men never looked so appealing. The colors of the pool water and lush greenery, and, yes, flesh, look incredibly true and vivid. I’ve seen catalog titles on Blu-ray that didn’t look this good. There’s zero in the way of atmospheric grain, so Williams obviously shot with a digital camera. “Role/Play” is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen.

Audio:
The audio presentation is also solid, with an English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround providing a surprisingly dynamic experience. There’s a nice wide spread across the front speakers, and ambient sounds are channeled believably through the rear effects speakers.

Extras:
Williams offers a commentary track that covers the usual ground but also has him talking about his philosophies related to the themes of the film. The only other bonus features are a short behind-the-scenes featurette on “Getting into Character: The Making of ‘Role/Play'” and outtakes.

Bottom Line:
I can’t help but wonder what “Role/Play” might have been like if the lines weren’t so stiff that they seemed to bind both actors like one big splint. As is, “Role/Play” is only a fair film, though gays might welcome it just because there aren’t nearly enough films being made today about gay interests.

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