One should start, to get it out of the way, by saying that Looking: The Movie, which premiered on HBO earlier this summer, is exceptionally bad. Not bad as in “bad but fun,” or bad as in “bad but entertaining,” but bad as in “resolutely terrible.” This should come as no surprise, however: When the series, for which this telemovie is meant as a final chapter, debuted in 2014, it was met with a decidedly nasty response from audiences and critics alike, both of whom found of its storylines trite and its characters vapid and unexamined. One particularly excoriating review, by J. Bryan Lowder writing for Slate, called Looking “an almost unbearably boring television show,” “utterly flat in terms of narrative and characterization,” and likened it to “a lightly dramatized version of a press release originally meant for straight people.” The made-for-TV capstone, unfortunately, suffers from the same malaise as the series proper, managing an excruciating drabness that is the television equivalent of a cold bowl of Cream of Wheat.
Worse than the film’s confounding badness, however, is its insidious brand of respectability politics. In the series, these politics were embedded within an aesthetic interest in subtlety and uneventful simplicity–what Lowder called a “‘post-gay,’ nothing-unique-going-on-here ethos.” This ethos, meant to emphasize the normalcy of gay lives by showing gay people doing regular things, is back again, and accomplishes in the movie what it accomplished in the series: In its zeal to present gay lives as lives essentially unlike any other, it necessarily directs the movie not at the community it purports to represent but, rather, the status quo– for certainly gay men already know that in a quotidian sense they are “just like everyone else.” Yet the ethics at play in the movie are significantly more blatant and slightly more corrupt than they ever were, or seemed to be, in the series, and the movie works overtime to glorify traditional performances of masculinity among gay men, marginalize those who fail to comply, and vehemently reject thought that challenges the mainstream.
The film opens with Patrick Murray (played with a rankling bafflement by the Broadway actor Jonathan Groff) returning to San Francisco because his good friend Agustín (Frankie J. Alvarez, whose method of acting is gratingly over-reactive and self-aware) is getting married. Patrick has been living in Denver for the ostensible nine month interval between the end of season two and the beginning of the movie, having fled there after ending an ill-advised affair with his wealthy, not-quite-single boss and suffering an equally disastrous relationship with Richie, the charming, perpetually furrow-browed barber he met by chance. Patrick’s exile was a classic attempt at a new beginning, a self-reinvention, even, and we’re led to believe it worked: The Patrick who returns to San Francisco is markedly different from the one who left.
Looking can’t be bothered with anything as grueling as character development, so there’s nothing about Patrick, at least outwardly, that suggests this reinvention. Thank God the other characters are on hand to point out his many changes. We learn that the typically punctual Patrick has started running late because Agustín points it out it in the opening scenes, when Patrick meets he and Dom after arriving in town. Later, after Patrick hooks up with some twink he meets in a bar, Dom comments on his newfound sexual confidence. “You look different,” someone else tells Patrick, at another point in the film. “I’ve lost a little weight,” Patrick explains with shy confidence.
Within the diegesis, all of these changes are presented as positive: Patrick isn’t as uptight as he once was; he’s loosened up; he’s started taking care of himself. In short, he’s doing better. Telling, then, that one of the first of such observations his friends make is how “masculine” he’s gotten. It’s a small, quick line, forgettably mumbled by Dom (played by Murray Bartlett, capable but underused in the film), but its early occurrence situates it as the foundation upon which all the subsequent superlatives are built. That is, Patrick’s supposed masculinity becomes a primary characterization of his transformation. He even admits, at one point, that he has a much greater sense of self-worth than he used to, and it’s more than suggested that that self-worth is due at least in part to his noted progression from effeminacy to masculinity. As if to be effeminate is to be mired in self-loathing and a few extra pounds. There’s a dangerous femmephobia underpinning this narrative of self improvement, and it pricks sharply.
This femmephobia rears its head elsewhere, too, especially regarding Brady, who is Richie’s new boyfriend and the only character in the movie that can at all be described as “femme.” Though he dresses in male clothing, his comportment is decidedly effeminate: He’s all flailing wrists, dramatic gestures, and emotional public outbursts. That there’s something cruelly stereotypical about the character barely registers, as his presence is such a welcome contrast to the rest of the cast, largely populated by the sort of gay men who might describe themselves, had they Grindr accounts, as “straight-acting.” Brady offers a bit of balance against this strange and suspiciously cis gendered, apolitical group of gay men, at first in terms of his gender performance and then, later, when he becomes a voice of (however minor) political dissent, questioning the semiotics of Agustín’s and Eddie’s “big gay wedding,” wondering if it indicates “how dull we’ve all become,” and proceeding to rail drunkenly against conformity and normalcy-chasing in queer communities (at the reception, no less, because he gives zero fucks). Here, the film squanders a perfectly good opportunity to have an actual conversation about the necessary intersection of politics and gay lives and offer a textured portrait of gay male thought, instead giving Brady an argument vague and depthless enough to be easily silenced by Patrick’s flimsy, “Yeah, but can I live?” rebuttal. It’s telling that Brady, at one point described by another character as the physical embodiment of “a blog no one reads,” yet also the film’s sole representative of a gay politics that might be skeptical of heterosexual institutions like marriage and traditional gender performance, is not taken seriously, either by the characters or the film itself. Instead, he’s treated as an aggressor and becomes nothing more than an emotional, maniacal (one wants to say “hysterical”), queen, ranting about how to be gay and making a scene on what’s supposed to be a happy occasion. Emerging as the closest thing this snore-fest has to a villain, Brady is both flaming and totalitarian.
Yet merely humiliating Brady is not enough for the movie: He must be punished further. Fittingly, at the film’s tidy conclusion, Richie–played, importantly, as every gay man’s straight-acting dreamboat, the ultimate prize, by Raúl Castillo–leaves Brady and returns to Patrick’s side. When Brady stumbles off after his spat with Patrick, we never see nor hear from him again. Not a villain after all; rather, a sounding board against which Patrick asserts his right to conform. As a result, the dual morals of Looking: The Movie seem clear: 1) that femme characters, and by extension femme lives, are at worst disposable and at best a means to an end, and 2) discordance will be met with disavowal and banishment. The urge among some gay men to penalize other gay men who don’t adhere to some movement-approved, ostensibly mainstream idea of homosexuality, either through their being or their politics, is an icky residual misogyny, and it’s a shame that Looking: The Movie laps it up like mother’s milk. As one of the very few filmic representations of gay lives available through a major outlet, it has a responsibility to do better.