Intermittently charming and often tedious, “Coffee Date” is another in the endless line of low-budget, gay-themed, goodhearted sitcoms that dot the nether regions of the film landscape. Much as a film like Stewart Wade‘s can be derided for its lack of craft, visual ambition, and recycled narrative of sexual identity crisis, it also can’t be denied that as a genre the marginalized gay indie, with its limited release pattern and eventual DVD and cable boon, is one of the strongest standing bastions of true independent American cinema. “Coffee Date” works on the same level as its brethren, and just barely stands out from the pack, save for its complacently goofy earnestness and its somewhat surprising choice to play it relatively straight, all the way to the end.
Innocuously shot on video, “Coffee Date” is gamely performed by the usual list of has-beens (Sally Kirkland, Debbie Gibson), never-before-seens (lead Jonathan Bray), and those, such as Wilson Cruz, whose genuine talents aren’t allowed the proper outlets in Hollywood’s discriminatory community of proud closet cases. Cruz, whose big break as gay teen Rickie Vasquez on the epochal “My So-Called Life, “seemed to portend a career of sidekick roles, has a winsome openness that deserves its own movie. And despite his best efforts, here he’s mostly reduced to second banana, acting as angelic catalyst for straight-guy doofus Todd’s mid-thirties sexual self-evaluation. With his attractively average build stuffed into pastel polo shirts and button-downs, and tucked into beige khakis, Bray does the usual awkward hetero shtick with requisite bland professionalism; looking like some sort of mutation of Patrick Wilson and Garry Shandling, his streamlined fussbudget routine mostly works when not grating.
The script’s main problem is that beyond its fun central rom-com conceit (ostensibly straight Todd is set up by his macho jerk brother on a practical joke/blind date with Cruz’s Kelly, only to form a close friendship with the more flamboyant younger man), spun off from Wade’s earlier short-film festival fave, devolves into a screechy unending repetition of Todd’s gay panic. Everyone thinks he’s gay!!! Baffled but understanding mom flies in, his coworkers “accept” him with a nervous smile, his brother rants in disgust – stretched out to feature length, Todd’s endless selfish freak-outs, even as he grows ever closer to Kelly’s freer spirit, reach comic and dramatic dead ends.
Meanwhile, to pad out the film to feature length, Wade indulges in all sorts of outmoded gay film stereotypes – Judy Garland’s and Barbra Streisand’s names are bandied about as supposed punchlines, and Kelly’s lisping gaggle of gay friends, played improbably by men who look like they’re well over 50 (the director’s friends?), mooning over the prospect of seeing Tom Cruise’s bare ass…what decade is this? The easy jokes and pandering cliches negotiated by gay comedies, which code homosexuality as a series of mostly nonsexual traits, from hair care to loving show tunes, extend the early Nineties co-opting and mainstreaming of gay cultural signifiers by people like Paul Rudnick and films like “The Birdcage.” There doesn’t seem to be a way out now – and yet even if one wishes that Wade had resisted overburdening his modest little movie with the same flimsy one-liners that “In and Out” trafficked in a decade ago, at least “Coffee Date” serves its niche warmly and with no frills.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, a contributor of Film Comment, and the managing editor at The Criterion Collection.]