Ever since the gay television swell of the early to mid-aughts, viewers have been looking to the fill void left by “The L Word,” “Will & Grace” and “Queer as Folk.” Sadly, “Looking” leaves them still looking. Andrew Haigh’s HBO series (which only lasted two seasons) deliberately eschewed the fabulousness of those beloved shows, instead aiming for the unstructured writing and hipster ennui of “Girls.” In his eagerness to distinguish the series from its natural predecessors, Haigh strayed too far from his own voice, so clearly defined in his acclaimed feature films “Weekend” and “45 Years.”
HBO may have been betting that Haigh could conjure some of the magic of those films for his feature-length take on “Looking.” Unfortunately, the film only plays like an epilogue to the series, resurrecting its hunky characters just so viewers can ogle them a bit longer. It’s the lesbian couple trying to make it work one last time, even though everyone knows they should have stayed broken up.
“Looking” picks up a year after the series finale, returning its squeaky clean protagonist, Patrick (Broadway darling Jonathan Groff) to San Francisco from Denver, where he moved in an attempt to “hit the reset button.” Rolling suitcase in tow, he heads straight out for a night on the town with beardy best friends Augustin (Frankie J. Alvarez) and Dom (Murray Bartlett).
The occasion for the trip is reformed playboy Augustin’s impending wedding to Eddie (Daniel Franzese). Patrick’s duties as “maid of dishonor” entail talking Augustin down off the ledge when he fears marriage will turn him into everything he rallied against in his radical youth. (“I’m not who I thought I’d be, and that’s tough for me to take.) Augustin embodies the fears of contemporary queer culture at large, or maybe Haigh’s fears about his own HBO-ified artistry.
This being “Looking,” however, fears are quickly explained away as just part of life. Or, to use Patrick’s odd metaphor; life isn’t a Katherine Heigl movie, it’s more like the “Alien” trilogy, and Augustin is still in the first act.
Ridley isn’t the only adopted queer icon who gets a shout out, Tyne Daly also makes a brief appearance as an unmarried wedding officiant. (One of the film’s better lines: “Nobody wants a fat trainer at the gym.”) It’s only a hop and a skip from Tyne Daly to “Cagney and Lacey” to Sharon Gless, who played Deb, the flamboyant and over-bearing mother on “Queer as Folk.”
Franzese’s casting gives a nod to a few more gay touchstones; bears, femmes and “Mean Girls.” In his first appearance, he is wearing a shirt that says: “Yes Fats, Yes Fems,” a reference to many a Grindr profile, the hookup app on which some users will specify: “No fats, no fems.” (A reminder of the body-shaming and internalized homophobia rampant in the gay male community.) Eddie’s presence onscreen is Haigh’s nod to such body politics, but it would feel more genuine if Eddie had more than one real scene.
Haigh attempts to tackle the second part of “No fats, no fems” with an argument between Patrick and Brady (Chris Perfetti). Their rivalry over Richie (Raúl Castillo) leads Patrick to make an offhanded comment about Brady being the “wife,” which upsets the drunken Brady. (Surprise! Nobody wants to be the woman!)
Doris (Lauren Weedman), the straight woman friend, sums up: “I love it when gays fight with other gays about being gay.” It’s hard to tell if that line is there to make straight audiences feel comfortable, or if it’s just another clunky joke that doesn’t quite land.
Much like the series, its flat comedy is ultimately the demise of “Looking.” Originally marketed as “Girls” for gay men, to compare the comedy in “Looking” to that in “Girls” makes Lena Dunham look like Tina Fey. While Dunham’s asides often venture into tangential territory, sacrificing structure for yet another wildly inventive self-deprecation, the quips in “Looking” are stiffly expository. Consider this barb Patrick launches at Brady: “He’s like a blog that nobody reads, but in human form.” It’s hard to tell what’s more cringeworthy: The jokes or the actors’ unconvincing laughs.
Film professor B. Ruby Rich appreciated the film’s subtlety: “It ran too counter to the fabulousness people want to claim…It had a leisureliness to it, and a grappling with the minutiae of issues that wasn’t what people wanted or expected. I found it kind of refreshing that way.” But in dodging big issues and fabulousness, “Looking” ends up being a not very fabulous film that’s not about a whole lot.