Thursday, August 5, 2010

Movie Review: Outing Riley

I'm privileged to have been on both sides of the coming-out-to-the-family scenario (or I will be once I actually come out myself). My brother came out in college. I'd had gay friends before, but it's completely different when it's someone you used to share the bathtub with.

I'll share more about his coming out in another post. However, I think having experienced both sides of the situation enabled me to have a richer appreciation for the movie Outing Riley (which I watched at Outing Riley is about a Chicago Irish Catholic man, Bobby, who decides to come out to his brothers after the death of their father.

A good part (a bit too much) of the movie is filled with Bobby trying to screw up his courage to tell his brothers, leaving the aftermath of the telling a bit rushed in places. The movie does an excellent job of portraying the dynamics of a large family and the different relationships that occur within.

The movie didn't overly saccharinize the large family as Seventh Heaven does; it really felt like I could have been watching my own family, with all its faults and squabbles but also the special closeness and in-jokes. The latter provided needed moments of levity; there were a couple of times I laughed hard enough I had to rewind to catch what I had missed. On other occasions, it felt like the jokes were trying too hard; they ventured on the sophomoric.

Outing Riley mostly avoids cliches. Bobby is the stereotypical beer-drinking, slightly overweight thirty-something Midwestern baseball fan -- more so than any of his brothers -- except he's gay. You can't have a movie about Irish Catholics without somebody having a substance abuse problem, although the brother in question seems to be mostly functioning, and it's a minor plot point.

The portrayal of priests, on the other hand, was all too typical of Hollywood. The priestly brother comes across as arrogant, preachy, and judgmental through much of the movie. And then there's a bizarre scene where another priest chastises Bobby for not blessing himself with holy water as he's leaving the church, obviously upset. Most parish priests I know have simply seen too much humanity to act as though they have all the answers. They became priests so they could serve, not to act as judges. The priests I know might have stopped Bobby, but only to ask if he was alright and needed someone to talk to. Again, though, these were minor points in the movie.

What made this movie truly remarkable to me was its portrayal of Bobby's brothers' reactions to his news. I've heard people say, "If they can't accept you when you come out, you don't need them in your life" as if acceptance is something that occurs instantaneously. But for many LGBT people, self-acceptance took years. Why should your family be able to process it in nanoseconds when you tell them that you're not who they always thought you were?

Outing Riley covers the whole gamut of emotions experienced when a family member comes out, from disbelief to anger and grief, through confusion and uncertainty, finally arriving at acceptance and celebration. Bobby's brothers are no saints; there are ugly moments, moments that made me cry, but the movie shows that love is a verb, and that as long as both sides of a relationship are willing to put in the effort, understanding can be achieved. Outing Riley ends on a note of redemption, the brothers drawn closer together. But the journey to that point feels very real.

The movie completely fails the Bechdel Test, with most female characters (the brothers' wives and even Bobby's lesbian beard) mere sketches. However, Outing Riley has one of my favorite female characters, Bobby's sister Maggie (played by the beautiful Julie Pearl), who's more pivotal to the story than any of his brothers or even his longtime boyfriend, Andy. If Maggie Riley were gay, she'd be my ideal woman. Maggie plays the role of mediator, which I often attempt in my own family, but she succeeds where I fail.

Maggie is no pushover. She is compassionate but firm in urging Bobby to come out to their brothers, and she skillfully negotiates behind people's backs to facilitate reconciliation. Despite her meddlesome ways, no one can get mad at her because she always has their best interests at heart. She's not perfect, however; her plan for finally getting Bobby to come out ends in disaster. But her warmth, exuberance, and gentle encouragement win the day.

Outing Riley showed little interaction between Bobby and Andy, which was a good thing since they seemed to have little chemistry. At points, the movie ventures on the farcical; it doesn't take itself too seriously, and you shouldn't either. The film is less about a gay man and more about his family's reactions to his coming out, and in that, I think it does an incredible job. I'd recommend it to anyone interested in a comedy that will still make you think.

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