Eating Out / Fighting Tommy Riley

| June 23, 2005

A friend and I were recently talking about how tired we are of the gay cinema cliché of male prostitution. Is male prostitution a daily part of the average gay man’s life? Really? Is it what we aspire for, to buy another guy for sex or to be bought in some warped capitalistic (and moralistic) consumption? Or is it that prostitution allows the possibility — and subsequently feeds the fantasy — of sleeping with a straight guy (“gay-for-pay”), which only begs the question, how many gay men want to sleep with straight guys?
Before the 70s, gay audiences only had screen suicide to look forward to; since the 80s it seems all that exists is hustling. The cliché has become so prevalent that I’m actually relieved when an independent gay film taps into some of the older clichés — because they at least now seem fresh and offer some other view of gay life. As a result, both Eating Out (Q. Allan Brocka of “Rick & Steve the Happiest Gay Couple in All the World” fame) and Fighting Tommy Riley (Eddie O’Flaherty’s first feature) are pleasant surprises.
Eating Out draws from the romantic comedy traditions of mistaken intentions and misunderstandings, and while it dips into the “blow a straight guy” fantasy, it’s true heart is the hope of love for all involved (well, at least, all the ones we care about), no matter what their orientation. With that said, the story loses focus (and tone) at times. Marketed primarily as “gay” (probably because rabid hets wouldn’t be caught dead in a movie theater where this is showing), the narrative is actually about the straight boy finally hooking up with his heterosexual crush. The fact that the two gay boys get theirs as well is almost incidental but is the more emotionally satisfying center of the film.
Because of the plot necessities, characters sometimes do or say things that don’t quite jibe with what little we know about them, particularly Gwen. As a result, performances can seem uneven. Most consistent is Scott Lunsford as the straight guy, giving an appropriate and satisfactory “deer in the headlights” performance as a not-so-confused college boy buffeted by the quirky women in his life. Emily Brooke Hands (Gwen) is the straight woman he desires but who can only fall in love with gay men and is alternately bold, bitchy and flirtatious. Rebekah Kochan is a one-note S&M porno girlfriend from hell and comes off the worst here, feeling more like a characture than a character. Rounding out this comedy of errors is the gay best friend Jim Verraros (American Idol finalist) and Ryan Carnes as the oblivious object of his desire.
The opening scene serves as a microcosm for many of the film’s strengths and weaknesses. A sexy seduction quickly becomes the fodder of porn films — but only the set ups, not the action — and then teeters over into uncomfortable moments of whether this is actually a rape before making it clear that it’s all a joke (well, a role play). You’re not sure how you’re supposed to feel because you’ve been yanked through a number of contradictory feelings about what you’re watching. The scene’s final punch line is the best moment and reassures us that, yes, we’re watching a comedy, but the previous few moments, when it wasn’t entirely clear have already left a slight bad taste in our mouths (so to speak).
As a result of these kinds of tonal inconsistencies, the film feels clunky at times, but there’s clearly talent behind it. The most effective (and most talked about) scene is the phone sex menage-au-tois that is both hot and narratively relevant — all three actors do an excellent job in this scene, and if the entire film had been this effective, it would be impossible not to recommend it. As it is, the film is a sweet diversion and a promise of better films to come from many of the people involved.
Interestingly, one of the more intriguing aspects of Eating Out — that a straight guy and a gay guy can be best friends — is at work even more vigorously in Fighting Tommy Riley, wherein an aging boxer/trainer sees potential in a young boxer. This is no Million Dollar Baby, though J.P. Davis (who also wrote the script) is prettier than Hilary Swank and Eddie Jones is, by gay standards, uglier than Clint Eastwood. This more apparent difference than in the Eastwood/Swank film in the attractiveness factor of each of the main characters makes for a better canvass upon which to explore the nature of friendship, mentorship, parent/child dynamics and in particular, possible sexual desire. Whereas Million Dollar Baby basically sidestepped the potential sexual aspects of the relationship, Fighting Tommy Riley ultimately brings them to bear on the story but then takes the easy way out rather than leaving the characters to truly consider the implications of their actions and declarations.
Though Fighting Tommy Riley dips into a pre-80s cliché right at the end, and the character motivation isn’t satisfactorily explained, the cliché does allow for a final image that affirms the love a straight guy can feel for a gay man. The performances are particularly strong, especially Eddie Jones as the former boxer and aging trainer. J.P. Davis delivers a good performance though the reasons for his character’s loyalty aren’t adequately revealed. The only real distraction (besides his body) is that his face (and teeth) are so perfect it’s hard to imagine that he has ever taken any hits.
Technically, this film looks gorgeous, the impressive cinematography dusting each image in a gritty sepia of de-saturated color. Though the script keeps things at a relatively superficial level, like Eating Out, there’s clearly talent at work here.
So if you’re tired of the latest My Own Private Idaho retread and are in the mood for a comedy, Eating Out may just be the right appetizer. If your stomach is a little stronger and you’re ready for another boxing drama, Fighting Tommy Riley is a great main course.

About the Author:

Josef Steiff Joe Steiff would gladly spend his days and nights watching movies and TV with a little writing on the side. Oh, and teach at Columbia College in Chicago. And maybe play Mass Effect. But sleep gets in the way. He's made a few films. edited Popular Culture and Philosophy volumes on Battlestar Galactica, Anime, Manga and Sherlock Holmes for Open Court Books, wrote The Complete Idiot's Guide to Independent Filmmaking and is a co-author of Storytelling Across Worlds: Transmedia for Creatives and Producers.
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