Roselyn Sanchez and Cuba Gooding Jr. try their hardest in Boat Trip (2002)

My World Of Flops is Nathan Rabin’s survey of books, television shows, musical releases, or other forms of entertainment that were financial flops, critical failures, or lack a substantial cult following.

I’ve long been fascinated by the maddening resilience of the gay-panic joke. How could this seeming anachronism of an age when the mere hint of homosexuality was supposed to induce giggle fits survive in an era where gay marriage is the law of the land, and our understanding of the complexities of gender and sexuality are supposed to be more nuanced? Then I realized something. The gay-panic joke doesn’t persist despite the enormous strides made by the LGBT community. The gay-panic joke persists because of the enormous advances made by the LGBT community.

Gay-panic jokes appeal to people who are not comfortable with ever-evolving conceptions of gender and sexuality. This sadly deathless strain of “comedy” resonates with people who are confused by identity politics and see, in the discomfort of protagonists terrified at the prospect of gay sex, their own shortcomings alchemized into comedy. The gay-panic joke implicitly tells audiences that it’s okay to be confused and frightened by these changes because change is inherently scary, and even the hero of the movie shares your discomfort. In doing so, the gay-panic joke lets audiences off the hook for their homophobia and limited perspective. The gay-panic joke posits gay sex as something that audiences and the protagonist are justified in freaking out about, while once again establishing heterosexuality as the universal norm.

Recent My World Of Flops entry Zoolander 2 engaged with these shifting conceptions of gender and sexuality through the character of omnisexual supermodel “All” just enough to be deeply offensive. The astonishingly ill-conceived 2002 sex comedy Boat Trip, on the other hand, doesn’t engage, or deal with shifting conceptions of gender and sexuality at all. The film occupies a strange time warp where Stonewall, AIDS, and the gay rights movement never happened and the public’s familiarity with homosexuality was likely to begin and end with a strong suspicion as to why that sassy Paul Lynde fellow never settled down with the right woman. Boat Trip is perversely a movie about the blurring of lines between homosexuality and heterosexuality that I cannot imagine having any gay following whatsoever.

The 2002 movie seems to take place in the ’70s spiritually, if not literally. As someone who has sailed on both Kid Rock’s Chillin’ The Most and the Jam Cruise (for professional reasons), I can attest that the entire cruise-ship industry seems frozen in time somewhere around 1973. The film opens with Jerry (Academy Award winner Cuba Gooding Jr. at his most exhausting) literally dancing with joy over the prospect of proposing to his nightmarish girlfriend Felicia (Vivica A. Fox). The soundtrack to Jerry feeling good is of course James Brown’s “I Feel Good,” the official anthem of peppy protagonists throughout the ’80s and ’90s. He then starts break-dancing, another nod to the cornball entertainment of the safely distant past. Boat Trip never encounters a hoary old cliché or trope that it does not want to lovingly resurrect, including the gratuitous break-dancing scene.

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A true romantic, Jerry takes Felicia on a hot-air-balloon ride to propose, but he gets nervous and, due to motion sickness, ends up vomiting all over his beloved’s cleavage. It’s all downhill from there.

Felicia rejects the proposal and a despondent Jerry spends the next six months feeling sorry for himself. Then one day his best buddy, Nick (Horatio Sanz, before he was funny), posits that on cruises men are guaranteed to have hot sex with beautiful women, no matter how troll-like their own physical appearance might be. Since Nick’s life revolves around getting laid, he ropes the lovesick Jerry into going on a cruise with him. At the travel agency, however, Nick makes the mistake of insulting Brian (Artie Lange). Nick does not realize that their travel agent Michael (Will Ferrell) is actually Brian’s boyfriend (Why would they? They’re both dudes!) or that Michael has enacted revenge on his boyfriend’s behalf by sending them on an all-gay cruise.

Alas, these dense gents don’t realize that they’re on a gay cruise until they’ve spent a good five minutes yelling about all the hot heterosexual sex they’re guaranteed to have. When they discover they’re on a gay cruise, they’re so overwhelmed that Jerry faints from shock. Sane human beings would respond to such a situation by vowing to make the best of it, a gay cruise still being a cruise, after all. But our protagonists are not sane adults; they’re little baby-men despondent that their sure-fire heterosexual sex spree has somehow morphed into a gay misadventure.

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Fortune smiles upon Jerry, however, in the form of Gabriella (Roselyn Sanchez), a gorgeous, scantily clad choreographer who is really into gay men, sexually and otherwise. Jerry is just about to tell Gabriella his secret when she insists that, like all heterosexual women, she can imagine nothing more sexually exciting than having sex with someone who isn’t attracted to her. Gabriella tells her new platonic chum, “Maybe I’ll be so horny that I’ll have a gay guy fuck my brains out.” So Jerry continues to pretend to be an effeminate homosexual solely for all the hot, hot heterosexual sex it’s sure to score him. Nick similarly can’t believe his luck when a squad of buxom Swedish tanning models end up on the ship and allow him to pour suntan lotion and various tanning creams all over their nearly naked bodies because as a homosexual, he isn’t going to be sexually aroused in the process.

The horny, hapless sidekick accidentally ends up making an impression on homophobic butch caricature Sonya (character actress Lin Shaye, whose dignity has been imperiled in many a Farrelly brothers movie, but never as aggressively as it is here). For some reason she illustrates to Nick her prowess at performing oral sex by shoving what appears to be much of a full-size baseball down her throat. Nick is more confused and mortified than turned on, but that doesn’t keep Sonya from essentially raping Jerry, having sex with him against his will in a sequence played entirely for laughs.

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Nick’s consciousness is eventually raised from “oafish and insulting” to “still oafish and insulting but at least trying a little” when he discovers the gay dudes he plays cards with are actually decent human beings. In a sequence that personifies the film’s half-assed, quasi-good intentions, a shocked Nick tells Jerry about how astonished he was to discover that some of the gay dudes he’s been hanging out with have jobs like criminal lawyer and doctor. He apparently entered the cruise assuming that broadway choreographer, hairstylist, Liza Minnelli impersonator, and interior decorator were the only four jobs open to homosexual men.

Roger Moore plays the rugged Lloyd Faversham, in a deeply committed performance as a man who never stops spouting leering gay double entendres. It’s nearly identical to his career-defining performance as a spy who never stops spouting leering straight double entendres. In playing Faversham, the exceedingly, even overly game Moore seems to have ratcheted up the camp flamboyance of his performance from the Bond franchise’s nine to Boat Trip’s 10.

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The nicest thing that can be said about Boat Trip’s retrograde take on homosexuality is that the clichés it serves up are benign. There are no killer queens here, no suicidal opera buffs vowing to slit their wrists while lip-synching to their favorite album. Even Sonya—a hoary stereotype of lesbians as masculine and glowering, angry, and overly aggressive—is perversely depicted as a threat primarily to one of our few heterosexual characters. The most malicious gay character is probably the travel agent who tricks our moronic heroes, but that’s obviously just to propel the idiotic plot forward.

Boat Trip uses its gay characters as little more than the colorful backdrop of a boring, paper-thin heterosexual romance. They’re on hand to trade winking double entendres with the protagonists and dispense advice and encouragement, not to pursue their own goals and dreams. Boat Trip genuinely seems to think there’s something progressive about its bold message that homosexuals are people too, that while they’re all mincing about to Cher in sequined thongs while drinking mimosas and screaming about how much they love Liza, they also probably have emotions and hopes and dreams and stuff, just like the straight people in the audience.

That would have been a weak, half-hearted message for a gay-themed comedy in 1973. It’s an insanely anachronistic message to try to impart in 2003. Boat Trip’s treatment of its gay characters is condescending to the point of insulting, although its treatment of its straight characters is just as confused. Gooding Jr. tries to salvage this misbegotten project through pure, puppyish energy alone. He seems less like an unusually excitable man than a man perpetually blasted out of his mind on cocaine, but his commitment to the role somehow just makes everything sadder.

But that was in 2003: We’ve come a long way since then, right? Look at Boat Trip bit player Will Ferrell. Surely he’s moved beyond this kind of comedy. Well, considering that just last year Ferrell starred in and produced Get Hard, a commercially successful comedy about a dude who goes to extreme lengths to ensure that he doesn’t get sodomized in prison that’s also pretty racist, it’d probably be a mistake to pat ourselves on the back for being so progressive.

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That’s the tricky thing about the gay-panic joke. As its name indicates, it only works in an environment where people are panicked or scared about homosexuality and transgendered people. I’d like to imagine that we inhabit a culture where people are comfortable enough with the LGBT community that jokes like these lose all currency, but movies like Get Hard and Zoolander 2 illustrate that that’s not yet the case.

Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Failure


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