"What would you say if I told you I was gonna kill myself on Christmas Eve...would you care?"
Ever been on the verge of sneezing but then don't? That feeling sucks, doesn't it? You're about ready to give in, but forces beyond your control pull you back, leaving you with a knife up your nose--an uncomfortable tingle that makes you want to turn your skin inside out and spit on it for fooling you. That's kind of the feeling I had with The Houseboy, a film with honest intentions yet oh-so empty promises.
If there was any need for a public service announcement about the dangers of being the third wheel in a gay couple, it's this movie. When the film starts, little Ricky (Nick May) is sandwiched between two older hunks in bed: the kind, lovable Simon (Tom Merlino) and the more distant, bitchier D.J. (Brian Patacca). Christmas is approaching and the couple is off to visit family, leaving Ricky--a 21-year-old boy toy/maid--alone for the holidays.
Already fragile after being rejected by his mother after coming out of the closet a month ago, Ricky--who works temp jobs and lacks focus in his life--is soon dealt another blow when he overhears his lovers talking about wanting a new "toy" for Christmas. Convinced he's on the way out, Ricky racks up meaningless sexual encounters and hits the drugs hard while left alone--also neglecting his chores like feeding plants and animals (who, like Ricky, are Simon's strays).
We meet plenty of lost souls along the way, from a supposedly straight stoner ("Why do you have a hamster, bro? You don't like to stick it up your ass or anything, do you, man?") to a potential vision of his future--an older man that Ricky (ironically) makes feel awful. His only sense of hope comes from his park chats with student Blake (Blake Young-Fountain), a "normal" guy whose primary interest isn't instant sex--an almost incomprehensible concept to Ricky.
A lot of these 81 minutes are spent watching Ricky mope as he throws himself a huge pity party (it's all very Less Than Zero-light). And while I feel director/writer Spencer Schilly has put genuine ache and care in the story and Ricky, a few major issues will keep you from taking it as seriously as he wants you to. The primary problem is the way the crucial scene in the beginning is handled, when Ricky "overhears" his lovers' idea. It's given so little importance in the way it's performed and filmed, you'll have a hard time buying how much it apparently destroys Ricky. Blink and you'll miss it: The crucial lines are delivered so low and matter-of-factly, you'll wonder if Ricky even heard them--and if he was simply a basket case to begin with.
It's hard to buy into his sudden brooding, and May's one-note performance isn't nearly strong enough to keep you invested--sober and stoned Ricky aren't much different. There's no depth or substance to his struggle, just shots of him thinking and whining. Ricky is such a sad sack, you wanna just slap some sense into him. He repeatedly tells his tricks--post sex--that he plans on killing himself on Christmas Eve, fishing for concern as he looks for love and acceptance. The scenes come across more silly than sad, and you'll actually sympathize more with his sex buddies, who aren't being cruel when they tell him he's acting like psycho and needs help. Another unintentionally funny moment has "serial killer!" written all over it, with the rejected Ricky staring at a spooky clown ornament as he chides himself like a 10-year-old.
A few drug-induced scenes--and a lot of softcore porn moments--try to draw us into his shame spiral, but Ricky comes across too desperate and attention-starved. You never actually believe he's serious (one of his tricks says so much, practically daring the fragile kid to kill himself), so it's hard to even care. And in the one scene where he almost draws you into his state of mind, when you're ready to surrender and have your heart strings pulled, May and the script retreat. You'll fell cheated and uncomfortable, just like after a lost sneeze.
Sure, the kid is young and impressionable, and I know of plenty of real-life stories where guys with low self-worth have made equally stupid decisions. But the film (and Ricky) is just too sad to be taken seriously--as is the ending, which didn't make me feel the way it was supposed to. The Houseboy isn't sure what path it wants to follow--Schilly is afraid to commit to his more challenging options, ending with an unsatisfying, giant cop-out.
The non-anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen transfer is average, with noticeable grain showing up in darker scenes. Some scenes--particularly outdoor daylight ones--are more crisp and sharp.
The 2.0 stereo track is solid enough for the mostly dialogue-driven film, although a few scenes had lines that sounded more distant and separated than they should have.
Leading the way are 14 clips of extra footage (19:02). Some are deleted scenes, but most of the content is clips of the actors interacting with the (mostly) unseen filmmakers behind the camera. It's an odd collection, and some of the sequences feel staged. If you like the movie, it's worth a look. Also included are a photo gallery and the film's trailer and trailers of other TLA releases.
There's genuine ache and care put into this story about a lonely 21-year-old longing for love, acceptance and self-worth, but the script--and the lead performance--aren't nearly strong enough to pull off anything meaningful. It's like the film is afraid to commit, leaving you with an empty feeling and untapped emotions. The one-note lead character elicits more pity than concern--and the ho-hum ending ruins what could have been the film's saving grace. Skip It.