A lot can happen in 10 years. That’s how long it’s been since writer-director Andrew Fleming first hatched the concept for “Ideal Home,” the idea coming to him when he was on the set of his arid Sundance hit, “Hamlet 2.” The world has come pretty damn far since then, if not quite far enough.
Back in 2008, a casually disposable comedy about the virtues of queer parenthood might have seemed progressive, even if it starred two straight actors and made their characters into human cartoons whose sexuality is used as the punchline of almost every joke. In 2018, that same comedy feels like a time capsule that someone forgot to bury — you can still get a laugh or two from looking at the stuff inside, but it’s hard to know what we’re supposed to do with it now that the future that “Ideal Home” wants is already behind us. The film isn’t funny enough to get around that temporal dissonance, and it isn’t nuanced or grounded enough to reconcile it. Still it does feature Steve Coogan rocking a t-shirt that reads: “I shaved my balls for this?,” so it’s not as if we’re dealing with a total whiff.
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There are Steve Coogan movies, and then there are Steve Coogan movies, and this is definitely one of the latter — that’s obvious from the moment we learn that he’s playing a man called Erasmus who hosts a cooking show on basic cable in Santa Fe. Naming a character “Erasmus” is basically an open invitation for Coogan to go full tilt and deliver a performance so vain and self-obsessed it makes Alan Partridge look like Tony Wilson, and Coogan takes full advantage of this golden opportunity. Case in point: The amusing scene where Erasmus gathers Santa Fe’s most powerful around the gaudiest banquet table he can find and leads them in a toast to “the little people.” Arrogance, minus irony, multiplied by obliviousness — nobody does it better, and it never gets old.
Erasmus’ longtime partner on the show and in life is a squat and comparatively grounded producer named Paul (a bearded and believable Paul Rudd). If it’s Erasmus’ job to keep a smile on his face and his head in the clouds, it’s Paul’s responsibility to bring things back to Earth. Erasmus would never admit that their relationship is in a rut, while Paul can’t go 30 seconds without sniping at him from a distance. When someone asks about their future as a couple, Paul shoots back: “Part of me wants to stick around just to watch him die.” They resent each other just like a straight couple!
Still, in a movie where most of the dialogue is single-mindedly geared towards reminding us that these characters are gay (“Erasmus is like the gay Butch Cassidy, but not butch”), it’s impressive that Coogan and Rudd are able to build a semi-believable bond through their squabbles, even if their sitcom antics never sell us on a deeper emotional core. Alas, the movie’s plot rests on the love between, putting more weight on their partnership than this 84-minute trifle can support.
The story, such as it is, kicks into gear when a red-headed boy named Angel (“Billions” actor Jack Gore) walks up to Erasmus with an old family Bible and declares that he’s his grandson. Apparently, Erasmus wasn’t always so discriminating about the friction in his life. Angel, who soon declares that he’d rather be called “Bill,” soon insinuates himself into Paul and Erasmus’ relationship, giving them a reason to stay together. Hijinks ensue. Taco Bell plays a surprisingly large role. There’s a great running gag about how no one can remember Bill’s name. At one point, Allison Pill shows up as a Child Protective Services agent who comes to the house and finds Paul’s trove of porn.
It’s all pretty low-key stuff, as Fleming naturally prefers a constant simmer of mirth to the occasional belly laugh. Despite milking most of the movie’s humor from gay jokes, the writer-director — drawing from his own experiences of same-sex parenting — is so determined to “normalize” the idea that he never lets homosexuality become part of the drama. Bill couldn’t possibly care less that his grandad is gay, and nobody else seems to mind, either.
That would be a blessing if not for how much the rest of the movie is focused on it, and also for how much Fleming struggles to come up with any kind of conflict. When Paul suffers a panic attack, it feels as though he’s only suffering to raise the stakes. And when Erasmus suddenly claims to care for Bill with every fiber of his being, it’s hard to buy the change of heart. There’s no denying the purity of Fleming’s intentions (the movie’s end credits even play over a montage of same-sex parents), but “Ideal Home” is too cartoonish to meaningfully celebrate the beauty of the families we choose, and too casual to accomplish much else. A decade ago, it might have felt like a step in the right direction — today it feels like the extended pilot of a network sitcom that should never go to series.
“Ideal Home” opens in theaters and on VOD on June 29.