SHOCK TO THE SYSTEM
A 2003 episode of Will & Grace finds Will on the phone with an acquaintance who recently came out of the closet, and who is initiating himself into the gay lifestyle by watching appropriately themed movies on DVD.
"Barry," Will explains, "it's okay that you didn't like The Broken Hearts Club or Kiss Me, Guido. Let me tell you a little secret that we try to keep within the community. Gay movies suck. But until the laws change, we're still obligated to go see 'em."
Such is the stigma that "gay movies" have had to endure, and sad to say, it's a stigma that isn't entirely unearned. But with Shock to the System, which will be screened during October 21's Quad Citians Affirming Diversity (QCAD) fundraiser, no one should feel at all obligated to see it; this comedic mystery-thriller gets so many things right that the things it doesn't get right are easily brushed off. Not only does it not suck, it's pretty damned good.
Starting at 6:30 p.m. with appetizers and open-bar service, the QCAD fundraiser - tickets for which are $60 and available by calling (309)786-2580 - will begin in the lobby of the Figge Art Museum. Then, at 8 p.m., the party moves to the the museum's theatre for the area debut of director Ron Oliver's Shock to the System, based on one of Richard Stevenson's popular mystery novels featuring gay private investigator Donald Strachey. (The role is played by openly gay actor Chad Allen, who also portrayed Strachey in the previous Stevenson adaptation, 2005's Third Man Out.)
Oliver's film has a friendly, genial tone, which is its most charming attribute - it's like Murder, He Wrote. But for a lighthearted comic romp with corpses, Shock to the System actually has a really clever storyline, in that the leading character's sexuality is directly tied to the mystery he's attempting to solve.
A young man's death appears linked to his involvement with a reparative-therapy organization devoted to "curing" homosexuals - a quasi-religious group that advocates the necessity of repression - which leads the openly gay Strachey (who suspects foul play) to infiltrate the establishment by posing as a closeted gay man in need of their guidance. (Allen plays Strachey's ruse, all faux discomfort and embarrassment, spectacularly well - you have no problem believing he could access the therapy group so skillfully.) And with Strachey subtly attempting to suss out the killer, the scenes set within this organization - filled with characters whose gay leanings are most definitely not lessening, and led by a vaguely sinister therapist (Michael Woods) - have a creepy suggestiveness, as when Strachey asks the therapist, "If God wanted it that way, why didn't He just make me straight to begin with?" and he receives the chilling reply: "He did."
Yet while the plotting (despite an unsatisfying resolution) is surprisingly sharp, what's more vital to Shock to the System's success is that the movie feels honest. It doesn't make the mistake of a lot of gay-themed works in insisting that gays are "as good as everyone else"; Oliver's film insists that gays are just as screwed-up and ridiculous and stupid and sloppy as everyone else, and that's an infinitely more positive - and, as a viewer, infinitely more appealing - message. (For a film of its type, Shock to the System features a bare minimum of strident moralizing.)
Strachey is short-tempered and a bit of a drunk and about as tidy as Oscar Madison. (He also has a habit of parking in handicapped spots and hoping no one will notice.) But he's also shrewd and smart and deeply committed to his partner, Sebastian Spence's Timmy, and the film doesn't make a big point about these contradictions; the film merely accepts that Strachey can't be easily labeled. (There's an amusing running gag here wherein characters keep greeting Strachey with "You're that gay detective I've read about!" - as if that's all he was.)
Shock to the System allows Strachey to simply be a person; his gayness may be essential to the plot, but it's tangential to his essential character. When Strachey asks Timmy whether he ever questions his past choices, or when (in a devastating scene that Allen enacts magnificently) Strachey reveals the self-hatred he harbors over his first, lost love, there isn't an audience member - male or female, gay or straight - who couldn't relate, and this gay detective is no longer a gay anything: He's just himself. And he's us.
No one is going to be fooled into thinking that Shock to the System is a work of great artistry, or even one that displays superior craftsmanship. Although Oliver appears to be going for comic noir, a TV-movie banality lingers over the film - complete with rudimentary composition and a host of weak supporting performances - and the dialogue, aiming for hard-boiled, is more like poached; you've heard this tough-guy-speak before in countless other films, and done with more finesse. (You've even heard the jokes before, as when Timmy tells the P.I., "I love you more than my luggage," just like in Steel Magnolias.)
Particularly in regard to technical acumen, I guess one could conceivably argue that Shock to the System sucks. But when it comes to emotional truth and emotional acceptance, I wish more movies sucked just like it.
For more information on the Quad Citians Affirming Diversity fundraiser, visit QCAffirmingDiversity.org.