Movie Review: “Wild About Harry,” formerly “American Primitive,” a re-issued “Dad’s coming out” period piece

I wasn’t going to review this damned movie.

It was pitched as “streaming” and “coming out” this week, but it turns out it dates from 2009 and some distributor decided it’d try to wring some more cash out of it under a new title. Even in the dubious ethics of PR and movie marketing, that’s not cricket.

“American Primitive” it used to be called, an apt title for a a period piece about the Everybody’s in the Closet era of North American homosexuality.

“Wild About Harry” is not just a classic pub sing-along tune, it’s what his lover pounds out at the piano to his “American Primitive” (pre-“shabby chic”) furniture business partner and other half in the film. Not subtle.

This is the sort of LGBT arcana that belongs on Netflix and Tubi and perhaps that’s where it’ll be soon. It’s too sweet to be discarded, too quaint and dated (even in 2009, when it made the festival rounds) to pull in prospective ticket buyers. But it’s well cast and charmingly-set on Cape Cod in 1973.

Tate Donovan has the title role, a widowed father of two daughters — Maddie (Danielle Savre, who went on to “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Station 19” on TV) and her bouncy, naive little sister Daisy (Skye McCole Bartusiak, who tragically died five years after this was made).

An animated prologue has Dad narrating the “fraternity prank” that led him to their late mother. But when we meet them, they’re moving to a Cape Cod cottage that has a workshop and retail space built into it.

Harry Goodheart is starting over. For the girls, that means trying to fit in at a new high school. For Harry, that means a new business with his new “partner,” Mr. Gibb (Adam Pascal), who will live in the bedroom out behind the workshop.

Maddie is a little curious about this sudden development/arrangement. . Daisy doesn’t give it a second thought on her way out the door to catch the bus.

“Have fun with Mister Gibb!”

The new school adjustment tropes play out according to formula. Maddie catches the eye of school hunk Sam (Corey Sevier), who suggests she go out for the tennis team, even though she didn’t bring a racket or the right clothes. Scorching the team’s star rich girl and cheer captain in bell bottoms and clogs isn’t going to make her many friends, and what that says about Cape Cod tennis in 1973 speaks volumes.

Maddie also catches the eye of the stubble-bearded, stocking-capped rebel Spoke (Josh Peck, a bit old for this part, even in 2009).

But no hard feelings. We’ll pick you up tonight. Let’s all go to The Atlantic House!

Damned if these teens aren’t hitting the best place to dance in much of America at the time, a local gay bar. Damned if Maddie doesn’t see Dad and Mr. Gibb working it on the crowded dance floor. She flips out, but quietly.

Researching gay “conversion/aversion” therapy in the library, leaning into the flirtatious, “Let’s help you meet someone nice” neighbor, Mrs. Brown (Anne Ramsey, the funniest player on TV’s “Mad About You”), dropping hints and throwing up obstacles to Dad and his beau being together becomes Maddie’s life.

Daisy? She has no more of a clue than Mrs. Brown, whose party full of “available” women loses itself in a sing-along with Mr. Gibb, who shows up and leads the house in a rousing “I’m just wild about HA-rrrrrry.”

One of the “prospects” is a local newspaper reporter, played with a pre-Trumpist verve by Stacey Dash. She’s determined to do a profile of the new neighbors/new business, even as her questions get “That’s a bit PERSONAL” from Harry. So he dates and kisses her just to throw her off the scent.

Ok, that’s funny. As is the song, every time it comes back up.

And there’s a light touch to Daisy’s naivete that is nicely contrasted to Maddie’s increasingly shrill campaign, worried about what “people will say.” Maddie even summons her late mother’s parents (Susan Anspach and James Sikking). But they can’t resist Mr. Gibb’s piano playing any more than anyone else.

Donovan, who’d get a modest career bounce out of “Argo” a few years later, beautifully channels the ’70s “gay and in hiding” vibe, a man who hisses “Don’t SAY that WORD” to Gibb when he refers to them as “homosexuals.”

“A homosexual is a man who goes around having anonymous sex in bathhouses,” which was certainly the image attached to gay men in the era. Any TV show of the day, from “All in the Family” to “Taxi,” that had episodes touching on this subject covered it in the same serio-comic way.

“Who knew?” was kind of a punchline in TV and film back then, an improvement over the “tragedy” that hung over homosexuals on film and TV in the ’60s, but still a long way from Ellen DeGeneres, Pete Buttigieg and today.

“Wild About Harry,” co-written by Mary Beth Fielder and director Gwen Wynne, does a decent job at capturing a moment in time and being entertaining about it.

Maybe gay “bad old closeted days” nostalgia could become a thing, even though it hadn’t in 2009, when “Wild About Harry” was an “American Primitive” that no one was buying.

Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual material and language

Cast: Tate Donovan, Danielle Savre, Skye McCole Bartusiak, Adam Pascal, Josh Peck and Anne Ramsey

Credits: Directed by Gwen Wynne, scripted by Mary Beth Fielder and Gwen Wynne. A Global Digital/Freestyle release.

Running time: 1″@3

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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