GAY MEN need not get their dander up about their depiction in "Three to Tango," a tame romantic farce about a case of mistaken sexual identity that comes with its very own seal of PC sexual approval: a special end credit to GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
Straights, on the other hand, should worry.
Largely portrayed as slovenly, leering commitmentphobes or neurotic control freaks, the heterosexual males of "Tango" do not fare nearly as well as their homosexual counterparts, here portrayed with welcome dignity and without the crass stereotyping often seen in Hollywood comedies.
Turnabout, I suppose, is fair play.
Matthew Perry and Oliver Platt get the game -- such as it is -- afoot playing Oscar Novak and Peter Steinberg, struggling architects and business partners up for a big design contract with Trump-like business tycoon Charles Newman (Dylan McDermott), a germophobe who washes his hands after every handshake. Peter, with elaborate facial hair making him look like a runner-up in an Arliss Loveless lookalike contest, is the gay and stable older one. Oscar, looking like, well, Chandler Bing of "Friends," is the straight but genially goofy young one.
Somehow their prospective employer gets the wrong idea about them -- perhaps because his secretary overhears Peter telling Oscar (or "Oscie," as he cutely calls him), "You're the best partner a man could have," or perhaps it's because he catches them kissing at the prospect of bagging a $90 million job. Anyway, thinking of Oscar as harmless, Charles enlists him to spy on his mistress Amy (Neve Campbell), a bohemian artist with too many ex-boyfriends, and Oscar is too afraid of jeopardizing his career to say no.
Can untrammeled merriment be far behind?
Actually, it can. The movie's half over before it really starts to whack at the funny bone. That doesn't happen when Oscar starts to fall for Amy himself (you knew that was going to happen, didn't you?), but only when it finally dawns on him that everyone -- including Amy -- thinks he's, you know, that way. Why writers Rodney Vaccaro and Aline Brosh McKenna wait so long to take advantage of that obvious tension is beyond me. It's one thing for the world to think of the very heterosexual Oscar as a Friend of Dorothy, but if we can't see his consternation, where's the payoff?
The second half of the film does have some real laughs, more than a couple of which have to do with the, er, endowment and orientation of Kevin Cartwright (Cylk Cozart), a bruiser of a pro football player who used to date Amy. The best laugh for my money, though, comes at one of Peter's famous gay dinner parties, when a complaining Oscar seems to announce, over the roar of a cappuccino maker, "I'm gay!"
"I win the pool," deadpans one of the guests.
And therein lies precisely the reason why "Tango," in all its lightweight glory, works at all -- the fact that Matthew Perry, slight though his gifts might be, is an actor who can play someone who might keep you guessing. Who else could carry off living in a jock strap-infested stinkhole of a loft with faux marbre wall treatments or be able to serve a tray of dim sum appetizers with a straight face to his beer-swilling football buddies?
THREE TO TANGO (PG-13, 98 minutes) -- Contains tepid obscenity, suggestive sex talk and a series of photos of flags painted on tushes. Area theaters.