A playwright and script doctor with an sweetly acidic sen=seof humor, he makes a living on scripts like "Addams Family Values,&quo=t;with subtle, snapping dark humor and oddball story lines that somehow feelfamiliar and common.
But his latest project, the is-he-or-isn't-he homophobiafarce "In & Out," has Rudnick in the spotlight himself overthe movie's pivotal gag.
Starring Kevin Kline as a sexually ambiguous school teach=erouted on national TV and suddenly besieged by his town, his fianc=C8e andthe media, the film is unrelentingly funny. But in what is arguably themost comical scene in the film, an "Entertainment Tonight"-typereporter played by Tom Selleck makes an enormous pass at Kline.
This kiss goes on and on -- it must be a good 20 seconds-- with Kline clawing to get away at first, but then suddenly wrappinga leg around Selleck.
While Rudnick says Paramount Pictures meddled very littlein what might have been a risky film to target at a mainstream audience,he admits the smooch made the studio suits nervous. But so far no gag inthe movie has gotten bigger laughs from audiences.
"I think the length is completely the secret of thatkiss," Rudnick says of the big scene. "It's a way of saying,'We mean this. Get over it.' And it's why it's so funny.
"If that kiss were some brief peck on the cheek, theaudience might be offended, they might be turned off, they might feel themovie was cowardly. There'd be a whole range of equally unpleasant anddeserved responses. But because the kiss won't let go, and it gets funnierand sexier as it goes, the audience gets into it, and their initial shockjust turns into tears (of laughter)."
Rudnick knows from laughter. Besides playing script doctoron "TheFirst Wives Club," and pounding out a mo=nthlyhumor column for Premiere magazine (under an assumed identity), he writesplays like the AIDS scare comedy "Jeffrey" (made into a filmin 1995), which tend to address social issues, tongue firmly in cheek.
In San Francisco this month to promote "In & Out=,"Rudnick did not address the issue of tongues in the big kiss, but he didsay the scene wouldn't have been the same without the ingeniously ironiccasting of Selleck as a charming, masculine, gay reporter.
"Oh, he's terrific!" Rudnick chirped. "Youcould have another great actor in that part and it wouldn't have that extradimension because it's not Tom Selleck.
"He's a sexy hunk. So when he grabs the guy, or thegirl, you want that to happen. (It's like) if Cary Grant, instead of grabbi=ngKatherine Hepburn, went after Randolph Scott."
This isn't the first gay screen kiss Rudnick has writtento get a laugh. In "Jeffrey," the shock of a surprisingly passion=atemale-male lip-lock is defused by a seemingly random cut-away to two teenagecouples, serving as a surrogate audience and reacting to the kiss in amovie theater. The boys recoil in terror, while the girls fawn romantically.The narrative then resumes with the rest of the kiss.
Rudnick smiles broadly at the comparison. "It's fasc=inatingbecause same sex kisses are kind of the final frontier in a way. Therehave been a lot of movies that have dealt only with gay sexuality, andsometimes an audience will be fine with that. But gay romance is seen asoddly more threatening. I think because (romance) is when movie stars reallyenter the national fantasy system -- you know, the swoon bank."
He voices a theory that it is part of a movie star's jobto go on great dates and share great kisses for the rest of us. Those kisse=s,he says, do not have to be discomforting just because they are not betweena man and a woman, especially if they're played for laughs.
"I think the audience, even the mass audience, isso yearning for romantic comedy, but because people are sophisticated andwe're living in an age of such overwhelming divorce, people are very waryof buying into a love story. They're cynical or they'll feel foolish ifthey invest themselves in a couple, gay or straight. Which is why the moviemakers have to keep finding new angles to keep romance possible on somelevel.
"An audience will accept all sorts of fantasy if it'saction-adventure -- you know, if they're being given total license to notbelieve what they're seeing.
"But they take romance in a weird way more seriously.They have personal experience in that area. Maybe they've never been toanother planet. Maybe they've never fought with Colombian drug lords orArab terrorists. But they've been on a date, so don't try to fool them.And (this) is a romantic comedy first and foremost."
"In & Out" eschews any kind of threateninglyhomophobic reaction on the part of the townspeople, which reeks of thefeel-good studio script machine, but Rudnick explains that he wanted thefilm to have "a demented Frank Capra feeling."
He says he toyed with creating "an evil school board="or some other kind of homophobic villain, but "it kept drifting intomovie-of-the-week territory. It made the politics of the movie so elementaland preachy, and I never wanted it to feel like a lecture."
"When you're dealing with gay issues in a movie, the=reis a certain tightrope there in terms (whether) you make a political docume=ntthat reflects (your) personal beliefs. This movie does. But you know, polit=icalmovies tend not to be very funny.
"I'm a big laugh whore," he says. "So whenI write anything, I just always think, is this going to be funny?"
The movie doesn't suffer any from the lack of communityconfrontation, but one late scene goes a little far in the other direction,with much of the town rallying to Howard's support in sort of an "Iam Spartacus" moment.
It feels like a reluctant re-write, but Rudnick insistshe intended the ending to be traditionally uplifting.
"There's certainly a strong element of fantasy inthat moment, where you've got this whole small town coming to the supportof the little guy. It's a Frank Capra moment."