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I mean, it's called 'Dicks: The Musical.' What did you expect?

Craig (Josh Sharp), God (Bowen Yang) and Trevor (Aaron Jackson) are gooped, gagged and gobsmacked in <em>Dicks: The Musical.</em>
Justin Lubin
/
A24
Craig (Josh Sharp), God (Bowen Yang) and Trevor (Aaron Jackson) are gooped, gagged and gobsmacked in Dicks: The Musical.

Somehow, Dicks: The Musical finds a way to be even less subtle than its title.

It's also sillier. Dumber. More crass, more tasteless. Also: It's exultantly stupid, blithely vulgar and joyfully trashy.

After all, as titles go, Dicks: The Musical is a clever wink, coy and knowing. Compared to it, the film itself is a Grindr notification in church, attached to an unsolicited but no-less impressive gallery of a stranger's privates.

It is also, I hasten to note, supremely self-aware of everything it does, and achieves its specialized purpose with laser-like precision. Said purpose, such as it is: ridicule The Parent Trap, toxic masculinity, girl bosses, the queer-assimilationist mantra "love is love" and the phenomenon known as "twincest," wherein hot gay guys tend to hook up with other hot gay guys who look so much like them that any public display of affection between them squicks everyone else the hell out.

Dicks: The Musical knows every square inch of its niche and aims itself squarely at it — taking obvious pride in giving Hollywood's treasured 18-35 straight cis white male demographic the very widest of berths — to arrive at its target among the gals, gays and theys for whom it was made.

Along the way, Dicks: The Musical enshrines itself as not merely critic-proof, but critique-proof; the film is one long, extended, more-or-less-sustained put-on. Every frame is soaked in broad, theatrical archness, in pantomime. Whenever the screenplay hits an emotional beat, you know it's only there to make fun of the fact that, in a "real" movie musical, that is where the emotional beat would have gone. To take even a second of this thing in any way seriously would be a waste of everyone's time.

But again: This is not only purely intentional, it's the mission statement. The line between Dicks: The Musical's intention and its execution is a closed circle.

There are consequences to this approach, however. Should you happen to notice, watching the film in a theater, that at times the folks onscreen are having more fun than the folks sitting around you — well, that's an inevitable byproduct of the film's decision to tailor itself so bespoke a manner.

The Parent Trap, but make it gay...er

But you, reader, likely want to know what Dicks: The Musical is actually about.

Oh, you sweet summer child. Fair enough, but do please keep in mind the above warning re: arrant, nay, egregious stupidity.

Craig (Josh Sharp) and Trevor (Aaron Jackson) are two high-powered, noxiously entitled salesman who treat everyone around them in the manner suggested by the film's title. They're strangers at first, but when their companies merge, they meet and (eventually) realize that they're identical twins, each raised by one of their divorced parents.

Said parents are played, with a kind of cosmic inevitability, by Megan Mullalley and Nathan Lane. And speaking of cosmic, Bowen Yang plays God, here, because this is the exactly kind of movie that would tap Bowen Yang to do precisely that. Megan Thee Stallion plays the twins' new boss as the kind empowered, man-hating dominatrix who only exists in a Ben Shapiro fever-dream of what feminism looks like.

Anyway, the twins endeavor to get their parents back together, and hijinks? They dutifully ensue.

But it's the nature of those hijinks that make the film what it is, for good and ill. Because while Dicks: The Musical is a lot of dumb fun and the songs (by Sharp, Jackson and Karl Saint Lucy) mostly work, the film is locked in a struggle with itself that's the inevitable result of its origins as a theatrical revue.

It's niche, biche

Dicks began as a show at the Upright Citizen Brigade theater in Manhattan, with every role performed by Sharp and Jackson. It exuded the same kind of camp sensibility that came factory-installed in theatrical send-ups like The Rocky Horror Show and, especially, the work of Charles Busch (Psycho Beach Party, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom).

That sensibility can best be summed up as, "Okay, it's just us in here — now let's make fun of the straights."

In spaces like that dark, tiny, crowded UCB theater late at night, the notion of "queer community" isn't abstract or academic. It's something you feel, it's the air you breathe. You've been brought into a safe space, and everyone around you — the performers onstage, your fellow audience members, even the waitstaff — are there for the same purpose, namely: Look, we know. We've all been force-fed straight culture all of our lives. It's boring, it's hack, and its notions of sex and gender are joyless and rigid and dull, so here, tonight, let's play with it, let's inflect it. Let's take some corny piece of straight culture, isolate its queer subtext and amp it up — way, way up — until it becomes queer domtext.

That original musical revue, which was called F***ing Identical Twins, was born into a niche, live-theatrical space, bathed in that specialized nutrient broth of queerness. No film adaptation could ever hope to reproduce that same z-axis of a vibe, but director Larry Charles (Borat, Curb Your Enthusiasm) gamely and commendably attempts to, anyway. As a result, Dicks: The Musical adopts a rough, low-fi, low-budget, hey-gang-let's-put-on-a-show-in-the-basement approach that's more redolent of the stage than the screen.

And here's where things get a bit muddled. The original revue was a half-hour show and featured six songs. The movie's pushing 90 minutes with 10 songs and two reprises. Turns out this level of sustained, high-energy camp isn't built for the long haul.

Moreover, Sharp and Jackson don't seem particularly interested in modulating their performances for the screen. In the film's opening minutes, for example, their attempts to embody straight male boorishness are funny, but they're pitched squarely at the back rows. As such, they don't manage to say much about toxic masculinity beyond that it's 1. toxic and 2. masculine. Would the film have been sharper, funnier, crisper if they'd managed to find something more specific — and thus more incisive, and more damning — about straight men to skewer? Maybe.

But that's not the joke they're interested in. The fun of Dicks: The Musical isn't what's being said, really, but how it's said, and who's saying it. That much is made expressly apparent in an opening title card informing us that the roles of the two heterosexual main characters will be played in fact by two gay men, and noting the braveness of this choice.

That's the gag, here — the big, over-the-top, queer-as-hell theatricality of Sharp and Jackson. Nuance, pack your bags. Subtlety, get thee hence. Sophistication, wit, cleverness, insight — you have no business here.

Dumb, filthy gay jokes, puns and sight gags? Welcome. We have your room ready.

Nathan, for you

It must be said that not everyone goes as big as Sharp and Jackson; not every actor on the call sheet is Ethel-Mermaning to beat the band. While the characters in the film are all cartoons, they're not all the same cartoons. Sharp and Jackson come off like well-executed stick figures, but Nathan Lane, bless him, valiantly strives to make the twins' father rounder, fuller, like something out of the Disney vault.

He is, after all, an old pro at pitching his well-honed theatrical chops to the specific needs of film and television. To watch his dogged, nearly successful attempt to wrest any kind of grounded, emotional throughline from a role that at one point requires him to repeatedly spew chunks of chewed-up lunchmeat at puppets (long story, never mind) is to marvel at what it means to be an acting legend.

No, Dicks: The Musical isn't "good," or "culturally relevent," or "a milestone in queer advancement." In most ways that matter, it's the opposite of those things.

But while Marsha P. Johnson may not have had this very stupid and willfully frivolous film specifically in mind when she (maybe) threw that brick at Stonewall, this film and others like it could never have been made if someone hadn't. Rest in power, Marsha P.

Because queer liberation means many things, but surely among them is the freedom to make our own dirty, trashy, funny movies of us, by us and for us.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Glen Weldon
Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.
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