Begging for approval like a puppy at the pound, the romantic comedy "Gray Matters" gets by, at least for a while, on a certain amiable awkwardness. First-time writer-director Sue Kramer piles on tried-and-true tropes as if she's just come from Nora Ephron's garage sale. Bubbly blond heroine? Check. Old movie references? Got 'em. As the camera tracks down trendy TriBeCa streets, you half-expect it to turn a corner and reveal another crew shooting an identical movie.
Heather Graham, her eyes frozen, saucer-like, in a look of perpetual befuddlement, plays Gray, an indecisive Manhattan ad exec whose love life is stuck in neutral. Perhaps it's the fact that she spends all her free time with her equally single brother, Sam (Tom Cavanagh), or the fact that they're so close they're frequently mistaken for a couple. Or perhaps her dithering has deeper roots. When she's asked to choose a wine, Gray sputters, "I'll have red. I'll have white. I'll have both." It's not Laurence Olivier and Tony Curtis discussing oysters and snails, but you get the drift.
Gray's terminally blurry life snaps into focus when her brother meets Charlie (Bridget Moynahan), a gamine beauty who quickly sweeps him off his feet. Within hours of their first date, they're engaged, and days later, they're in Las Vegas tying the knot, with Gray as shellshocked witness. It's bad enough that she's losing her brother, best friend and roommate in one fell swoop (not to mention their cavernous rent-controlled apartment), but when Gray and Charlie's prenuptial night on the town ends with a passionate kiss, the few certainties left in her life come crashing to the ground. Gray, you see, is gay. "Like Gray," she babbles, "without the 'r.' "
Kramer's script is full of such clunkers. Musing aloud on the awkwardness of her first same-sex kiss, Gray jabbers, "I feel inhuman. I feel like E.T. I should phone home. But if I phoned home, Sam would answer, and that wouldn't be good." Truer words were never mangled.
Drawing on their sitcom chops, Graham and Cavanagh cover for their cloth-eared dialogue with trumped-up camaraderie, pushing and pulling at each other like toddlers in playgroup. Their mildly creepy attachment would be fertile ground for any therapist, but Gray is saddled with a quirky headshrinker (Sissy Spacek) who holds sessions in bowling alleys and climbing ranges.
No more helpful, or better served by his material, is Alan Cumming's lovelorn cabby, a wind-up advice dispenser whom Kramer sticks in a dress when the going gets slow. At least Molly Shannon gets in a few licks as Gray's brassy coworker. After one particularly exercised rant, she exclaims, "Spewing is wonderful!" And tempting to follow suit.
Technically speaking, "Gray Matters" is a coming-out movie, but Kramer shows zero feeling for the nuances of a midlife sexual awakening. Apart from a warp-speed monologue musing on such topics as public hand-holding and death benefits, the movie stops at the first-date stage. Its vagueness is hard to fathom, since there are better-informed coming-out comedies on the market at any given instant.
Kramer manages a few memorable moments, such as Gray and Charlie's leggy mimicry of the "I Won't Dance" number from the 1946 MGM musical "Till the Clouds Roll By," performed in sync with the original as it plays on a background TV. But the juxtaposition just underlines the distinction between thrice-digested movie magic and the real McCoy.
"Gray Matters." MPAA rating: PG-13 for some mature thematic material, sexual content and language. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes. Exclusively at AMC/Loews Broadway, 1441 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica (310) 458-1506 #706; Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd. (323) 848-3500.