Like Brokeback Mountain, New Queer Cinema icon Craig Chester’s directorial debut Adam and Steve resonates from our current political moment. Both films tackle the issue of gay marriage, one more explicitly than the other, and together suggest the tensions that haunt gay men and keep them apart aren’t very different from place to place or decade to decade. In the late ‘80s, goth boy Adam (Chester) and his obese fag hag Rhonda (a fat-suited Parker Posey) meet dancing-queen Steve (Malcolm Gets) at Danceteria. Adam takes Steve back to his apartment, where they strip, fawn over each other like the teenagers they are (the actors—one caked in white makeup, the other half-hidden beneath a Dee Snider do—allow our assumption of their characters’ youth to do most of the work for them), and do bumps of cocaine unsuspectingly laced with baby laxatives. When nature calls and Steve takes an unexpected “Hershey squirt” on the floor and Adam responds with a show of projectile vomiting, Steve runs out of the apartment in horror. Seventeen years later, they meet again and fall in love, oblivious to the fact they’ve met before.
Compare Adam and Steve, so clumsy and unsophisticated in spots, to the false sincerity of Madonna’s slick “I Love New York” from the otherwise fine Confessions On a Dance Floor. The beat is fierce but Madge’s political stance is glib. People are so hung up on the song’s corny rhyme (“If you don’t like my attitude then you can f’ off/Just go to Texas, isn’t that where they golf?”) they miss the singer’s red-state condescension. Chester corrects such crassness in a scene where Steve’s parents come to visit him and Adam. The values of Steve’s parents are shocking to the highminded Adam (he scoffs at the 9/11 commemorative plate and boxed wine they bring to dinner) just as Adam and Steve’s relationship makes the older couple feel uncomfortable (they tense up when the men reach for and hold each other’s hands). Chester resorts to adolescent humor to give impact to his points (Steve squirts a turkey baster strategically near Adam’s ass), but in spite of these slips, the audience doesn’t lose sight of the fact that the actor-director is genuinely concerned with paving and having his characters navigate a two-way street of understanding.
Adam and Steve‘s humor, like that of any film that tries to extend the skit comedy into full-length form, comes at you with its arms flailing, and as such its tempting to measure its success in terms of the percentage of jokes that stick. A highlight includes a now-slim Rhonda literally hypnotizing Steve’s straight roommate, Michael (Chris Kattan), with her feminine wile (a Philip Glass-like trance plays on the soundtrack), but the hit-to-miss ratio favors the duds by at least 1:2. Chester is a charming physical performer who expects too much from his audience (not unlike Rhonda, a comedian whose entire shtick is predicated on the idea that she’s still fat), but even the film’s lowliest, most exhausted gags pack valuable political or emotional insight, like Adam’s fear that straight men will hit him with beer bottles should he express PDA (even in the heart of Chelsea!). Like Rhonda’s routine, Adam and Steve’s relationship evokes a ritual of negation. This gay rom-com—which allows Chester to cleverly conflate the personal trauma of the couple’s 18-year-old incontinence nightmare with the national horror of 9/11—allows its maker to address notions of compassion, forgiveness, and emotional healing. This is a film that acknowledges that all of us, gay or straight, need to get over our shit.