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Blades of Glory: Man, oh, man 

Will Ferrell comedy skates on the cutting edge of straight panic

The comedy Blades of Glory envisions the first-ever man-on-man competitive figure-skating team. With their long hair and tight, spangled outfits, Chazz Michael Michaels (Will Ferrell) and Jimmy McElroy (Jon Heder) take the rink for series of moves that include embraces, straddles, crotch-lifts and near-69 positions. The routine seems less suitable for the Winter Olympics than the Ambiguously Gay Duo, but the skaters are straight.

Blades of Glory may be a crowning achievement – or perhaps the tiara on the top – of a current brand of humor that could be summed up as "straight panic." Film and television seem overrun with straight guys terrified of being mistaken as being "that way," with the comedy manifesting itself in either ridicule of masculine insecurities or mean-spirited homophobia. The famed gay-activist chant goes, "We're here! We're queer! Get used to it!" – but part of the population is clearly having issues with that last bit.

The recent revelation that some celebrities claim not to realize that "faggot" is offensive shows how America's cultural attitudes toward homosexuality still have some evolving to do. With better timing than reasoning, the Adam Sandler film Reign Over Me steps into that particular fray. Sandler's character renews his friendship with his college roommate (Don Cheadle), and at one point calls him a "faggot" for hesitating to have fun. Cheadle reproves him for using the word and Sandler replies, "But you're not one, are you? For you, it's just a funny word, like 'pound cake.'" Sandler's character almost has a point, except that he's still using the word as a loaded insult. One wonders if Sandler would be similarly blasé about the word "Jew" used to tease a Christian.

Nevertheless, some stereotypes that may have raised red flags during the gay activism of the late 1980s and early '90s seem less inflammatory today. On the pilot of NBC's "My Name Is Earl," Earl (Jason Lee) helped a closeted gay man named Kenny come out. On a subsequent episode Kenny thanked Earl and enthused that he never realized there were other gay people in the community. Kenny works in a copy store, and in the background a queeny co-worker attempted to use a copier and snapped "Oh yes you will collate!"

Some of the joke's humor comes from Kenny's nonexistent gaydar, but it also indicates that a post-"Will & Grace" era permits a certain comfort level with homosexuality – not gay-bashing so much as gay "ribbing." Still, it's probably wise to let the gay humorists poke fun at the gay stereotypes.

The now notorious Super Bowl Snickers commercial embodies the straight fear of being mistaken as gay. Two mechanics eating the same candy bar accidentally kissed à la Lady and the Tramp, and then, worrying about their perceived sexual orientation, tore out their chest hair to prove their manhood. ("The Daily Show's" Jon Stewart pointed out that, if you want to prove you're not gay, removing your body hair may not be the best approach.)

Hardly sympathetic role models, the guys are clearly idiots, and it's surprising that our nation's auto mechanics didn't protest the depiction. The online versions of the ad, with the mechanics acting macho by drinking antifreeze or beating on each other, went in uglier directions. Snickers didn't match the amusing ambivalence of "Seinfeld" in a similar situation. When pals Jerry and George were erroneously outed as longtime companions, they cried in horror at the situation while hastily adding, "Not that there's anything wrong with it!"

Wild Hogs seems convinced that there really is something "wrong with it" as the four middle-aged protagonists ride motorcycles cross-country. Perhaps they're overcompensating for male bonding while wearing leather outfits worthy of the Village People, but John Travolta's would-be alpha male bullies "wimpy" William H. Macy with unironic hostility. Meanwhile, the gay characters come across as complete freaks, including a sexually threatening biker; an amorous, borderline-psychotic park ranger; and, in a small role, a flaming cowboy singer (Kyle Gass of Tenacious D). The roles seem present mostly to make the movie stars look butch by comparison.

Still, there's plenty of positive humor in the uncertainty as to how overtly men should express their feelings for each other. On "Scrubs," Zach Braff's J.D. and Donald Faison's Turk are straight while being virtual soul mates, and on the show's recent musical episode they even sang a tender, dewy – but platonic! – duet called "Guy Love." It's not unlike Starsky's borderline-inappropriate man-crush on Hutch in the Starsky & Hutch movie.

Blades of Glory skates to the brink of homophobia without crossing the line. Chazz and Jimmy might be straight, but their foolishness is never in doubt. When they first perform as rivals, Jimmy skates mincingly with peacock feathers on his butt, while Chazz postures on the ice with the cocky moves of a heavy-metal guitarist. Banned from skating and reluctantly teaming up, they bicker over who has to be "the girl" on the ice and who sleeps in the upper bunk bed ("I'm always on top!").

Controversy over their competition at times parodies the gay-marriage debate: A man-on-the-street TV interviewee holds up a Bible and declares, "There's nothing in here about two men skating!" When Chazz and Jimmy put aside their differences, recognize each other's talents and come together for their final routine – accompanied by a particularly amusing Queen song – they're as perfectly matched as, well, Siegfried and Roy.

Blades of Glory ends on a triumphantly kitschy note that implies that the twosome may be more at home in each other's arms than with their lady friends. At the very least, Chazz and Jimmy learn a lesson lost to the Snickers guys and the Wild Hogs: Real men don't sweat what other people think.

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