Grindr’s foray into film is a grind all right

A gayer and much worse variation on ‘My Best Friend’s Wedding’

What would happen, you might ask, if a software company that found huge success as one of the first geo-social apps dedicated to the art of hooking up (and by extension, collecting and monetizing user data) decided a change of pace was in order to keep engagement going during the extended doldrums of a worldwide pandemic?

If you were Grindr, the app for gay men featuring grid after grid of user-generated photos (usually shirtless and often headless) to accompany the profile entries detailing the offers and desires from the twinks, twunks and others who post, the answer apparently is to get into the scripted series/film business. “Bridesman,” the result of that decision, comes to the screen at the Castro Theatre as part of the Frameline Fall Showcase today and Friday.

Described in the press materials as a “hilarious twist on the 1997 romantic comedy ‘My Best Friend’s Wedding,’” “Bridesman” stars Jimmy Fowlie as Terry, a failed reality star, narcissist and “shamelessly self-absorbed twink who embarks on a mission to sabotage his childhood best friend Judith’s wedding by seducing the groom.”

OK, maybe not the most original idea in the world — and any press release that uses the hackneyed term “hilarious twist” is running up a red flag, but surely there are comic riffing possibilities for the enduring and often quite true trope of the gay man whose bestie is a woman he’s known for years and who see each other as soul mates, right?

Indeed, this was the premise for “Will and Grace,” which ran from 1998 to 2006 and turned out to be a fantastically funny TV series. The show also broke new ground in terms of how those bestie friendships can be deliciously fraught, territorial and sometimes petty, yet also close and ultimately human as they develop over time.

Three years after “Will and Grace” ended, Grindr went into business as a “location-based social networking and dating application for gay, bi, trans and queer people.” So willing people suddenly had the opportunity to merchandise themselves and cruise locally, domestically and even internationally. The Grindr user experience is designed to mimic a slot machine; and it has succeeded in attaching millions of men to their phones as they scroll through profiles for hours and hours from their rooms, apartments or architecturally interesting homes, all hoping to hit the elusive jackpot of what author Erica Jong called the “zipless f**k in her book “Fear of Flying.” In a groundbreaking cultural moment in 2011, Vanity Fair called the app “the world’s biggest and scariest gay bar.”

By the time COVID-19 came to play in 2020, Grindr certainly wasn’t the only app dedicated to hooking up (aka dating) with Tinder, Scruff and others jostling for position. And as Scruff looked to the scruffier among us (and their admirers), Grindr continued to be most associated with the twink contingent where youth takes precedence. The sexistential dilemma of course is, if in a pandemic you can’t hook up, what’s the point of a hook-up app? And further, if you are said app, how do you (to use a now exhausted term) pivot?

“Bridesman” opens with a close-up shot that is right out of a porn film, a visual calling card that begins our alleged romantic comedy. Audacious, you say? Why yes, it is, but there’s not much interesting or smart afterward to hold one’s attention.

This shortage becomes quickly obvious, both behind the camera and, unfortunately for the actors, in front of it as well. With a couple of exceptions, the “Bridesman” stars come across as marooned, or worse, as unexplained presences as the wedding preparations commence and our lead actor ponders his own hotness, seduces an amiable Uber driver and connives to sleep with the bride’s husband-to-be.

Director Julian Buchan is primarily known as a photographer and, based on his website, has talent for shooting intriguing stills. But assembling a film, broken down into six 8-10 minute episodes, presents a challenge to which he does not rise. The movie is a parade of stereotypes, in a possible gesture to those dedicated to using the app. Yet if the aim of a movie from Grindr is to relish in biting the hands that feeds, the execution here is so buggy (to use a software term) it just falls apart.

After I’d finished watching, it struck me that the lineage of “Bridesman” isn’t so much “My Best Friend’s Wedding” or “Will and Grace,” but rather two more recent cultural bellwethers: Dan Levy’s brilliant “Schitt’s Creek” and Netflix’s gloriously filthy “Big Mouth.” Both are produced by bona fide creative entities and manage the neat but elusive hat trick of gleefully mocking their targets, while showing their characters some love and even, gasp, affection. Also, one could make the case that in a romantic comedy at least one character needs to come across as likeable. And it should be one of the leads, not the Uber driver (Calvin Seabrooks in a short and deftly underplayed turn).

But Grindr, as anyone who has used the app is aware, is not a creative entity. It is a software company that depends on user-generated content and the willingness of its users to subscribe and sit on the app for long stretches for it to make money. While admittedly there is plenty of mockery going on in “Bridesman,” it’s hard to tell who’s mocking whom when the lead character in the next to final episode (who has a tattoo on the back of his neck that reads “LIES”) ironically deadpans, “What can I say, Muriel? The Grindr app is a hot spot of cultural activity. Not only is it a great way to meet friends. It also excels as a networking device as well. With the Grindr app, truly the sky’s the limit!”

The “Bridesman” series screens in its entirety at the Frameline Fall Showcase at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., S.F., at 6 p.m. Friday, Nov. 12. Tickets are $16. Visit frameline.org/showcase. The six- to 10-minute episodes are also available on YouTube and the Grindr app.

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