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Queer as joke 

Ethan Green is done in by its unfabulous hero

The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green founders on the challenge of making a superficial, unlikable character worth watching. Earlier, better romantic comedies like Michael Caine's Alfie were up to the task, but Ethan Green, despite its many charms, suffers by presenting a shallow portrait of a shallow person. A good-looking, theoretically clever gay man, 26-year-old Ethan Green (Camp's Daniel Letterle) struggles with being unlucky in love -- if by "unlucky" you mean immature, inconstant and hypercritical. At one point, Ethan justifies breaking up with someone for not being masculine enough: "I just want someone butcher than me and less masculine than Chastity Bono."

When one relationship goes bust, he forces his supportive roommate (Shanola Hampton) to listen to him whine all night about how "self-destructive" he is. Director George Bamber plays the sequence for laughs, well aware that anyone can identify with the impulse to wallow in self-pity. But, jeez Louise, could Ethan be any more annoying? Letterle's whimpery delivery, wet-noodle posture and put-upon expression arguably suit the character: Perhaps it's to the actor's credit that you want someone to smack Ethan around.

Ethan starts to worry about growing old and being alone, even though dreamy guys practically throw themselves at him throughout the film. Ethan maintains off-again/on-again relationships with Kyle (Diego Serrano), a hunky former baseball player only recently out, and Punch (Dean Shelton), a smug, oversexed, hyper 19-year-old. Ethan also wonders whether he missed a good thing by breaking up with his sane, steady ex-boyfriend Leo Worth (David Monahan).

When Leo announces he's selling the house where Ethan lives, our anti-hero, rather than relocate, enlists a depressed, incompetent Realtor named Sunny Deal (Rebecca Lowman), who'll keep the house on the market forever. It's a funny concept, featuring a little animated sequence detailing Sunny's misfortunes, but Lowman overplays the character as so jittery and mannered, the humor short-circuits. The film adapts Eric Orner's original comic strip of the same name, and frequently things that may have seemed arch and amusing in hand-drawn panels become heavy-handed and obvious on film.

Ironically, the most cartoonish aspect of the comic strip works best. Ethan has two mentor/"aunties" in the Hat Sisters, a pair of middle-aged, mustached drag queens (Joel Brooks and Richard Riehle) prone to wearing matching sky-high bonnets and flowing floral sundresses. Rather than camp up the outrageous characters, veteran character actors Brooks and Riehle mostly underplay them, so their nurturing quality comes through and their catty dialogue and anti-Republican pranks become almost beside the point.

Ethan Green crafts some amusing one-liners and throwaway gags about contemporary gay lifestyles. When Punch meets Ethan, he declares, "That's so hot -- a gay man without a cell phone." A bookstore shelf marked "Lesbian Humor" contains a single, lonely-looking volume. Ethan's mother (Meredith Baxter of "Family Ties") runs a gay event-planning business, providing quirky perspectives on wedding traditions. Ethan has recurring flashbacks of playing a "Mystery Date"-style game as a kid, and getting stuck with the Dud.

Despite its gay subject matter, the film stoops to romantic-comedy conventions as familiar and boring as any formulaic straight movie. Like a sitcom character, Ethan's roommate conveniently explains what's going on at the beginning of her every scene. The film lifts the angel vs. devil-on-the-shoulder conversation from Animal House. At the end when Ethan races to break up a commitment ceremony, the fact that the film acknowledges the running-to-the-wedding cliché does not exonerate the cliché, although it's funny when Ethan stops to browse through a Moen catalog.

Probably any film based on Orner's comic strip could only hope to be, at best, a second-tier Armistead Maupin adaptation. The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green only rarely finds the heart of the Tales from the City adaptations and proves breezy but thin. Early on, we discover that the Hat Sisters named Ethan's house "Villa Ryan" after Meg Ryan, and perhaps evoking the matron saint of the trivial rom-com condemned Ethan Green to that level.

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