Eleven Men Out, the third feature from Icelandic director Róbert I. Douglas, tries very hard to do many things. On one hand, Douglas' film is a semi-serious exploration of how a heterogeneous, male-oriented society reacts when one of its sports heroes announces that he's gay. On the other, though, it's a cheerful, fun Gay Movie, complete with a soccer-playing drag queen and a man in a baby doll tshirt that reads "I DID BECKHAM." On a third hand, Eleven Men Out is just the latest in the long line of stories about gay characters rising above the ignorance of others, in which no one is ever seriously mistreated, and there's very little doubt that the ending will be a happy one.
On yet a fourth hand, however, the movie bears a sneaking similarity to a new wave of films coming out of Eastern Europe (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and Something like Happiness, for example), in which the difficulty of life is a fact rather than the point, and characters find their own reasons to keep living. Unfortunately, Douglas only hints around this last element, which is easily the most interesting in his ultimately rather lightweight film.
Björn Hlynur Haraldsson (blandly wooden, and bearing an uncanny resemblance to a young Christopher Lambert) stars as Ottar Thor, the star of KR, the best team in the top Icelandic soccer league. Though his life sounds exciting, the fact is the team plays in an old, all-standing stadium that is less than half-full, even on its best days. Ottar lives alone in a big but ragged apartment, the primary feature of which is a poster-size photograph of himself, shirtless. He's divorced from an alcoholic beauty queen and has a teenage son who spends most of his time hiding behind his hair and playing video games; life is anything but glamorous, even for this soccer star.
After a game, Ottar finds out that a locker-room interview he's giving will be in the back pages of a glossy magazine, rather than the cover story he had envisioned. In order to garner the cover that his ego demands, he announces to the reporter and his teammates (all of whom are in various stages of undress) that he's gay. While his forthrightness and subsequent refusal to make the things easy on his teammates by joking or even talking to them about his revelation is worthy of respect, the off-putting, attention-craving root of Ottar's confession makes the situation unusually complicated, and gets the film off to a promising start.
The problem, however, is that the contradictions in Ottar are never really addressed. His unthinking arrogance, while it's brought up by family members in two token "You're so selfish" moments, is no longer of any consequence by the film's end, when everything is magically alright for everyone. Similarly, his dreadful family situation isn't handled in any productive fashion -- his unbearable, humorless brother and manipulative father are presented primarily as obstacles that are less overcome than simply silenced by the screenplay. Whether either of them (or anyone else, for that matter) ultimately learns anything or grows at all is never resolved; the fact that they stop complaining is enough.
Shortly after Ottar's revelation, he's cut by KR. Despite his status as their star striker, his sexuality is so repellent to the team's board of directors (one member of which, merely by wearing an oxygen mask and never, ever saying a word, provides the film with one of its few non-sexual moments of humor) that they are unwilling to have him in the side. Luckily, it just so happens that one of KR's greatest heroes (Pétur, played by Helgi Björnsson) -- and the only person to accept Ottar's sexuality without question or judgment -- coaches an amateur team with a few players who are "kind of gay." Not surprisingly, Ottar joins the club, followed by a crown of increasingly flamboyant gay men; teams suddenly refuse to play them, afraid of losing to a club with gay members. Before we really know what's happened, the team has stopped insisting that they're not "the gay team," and have instead become known as Pride FC.
If it weren't for the gravity and genuine warmth that Björnsson brings to the role of Pétur, the scenes featuring his team would sometimes be painfully awkward. At severals points, the increasing flamboyance of the players comes uncomfortably close to "let's all laugh at the silly gay men!" slapstick, the inappropriateness of which is striking in a gay-themed film. Their characters, while vaguely appealing, are entirely undeveloped; the teammates are there to give the movie a plot, and to give Ottar people to pass to on the pitch. Because of Björnsson, however, the scenes stop short of being offensive. His mere presence as perhaps the only genuine, caring person in the film, brings a much needed realism to what otherwise would be cartoonish moments; because of him, instead being silly and empty, the trials that Pride FC goes through actually matter to us, if only for a moment.
Despite all of my objections to Eleven Men Out, however, I found myself completely engaged in the film as it neared the big finish: a game between KR and Pride FC (to be played, naturally, right after a gay pride parade). The film is intellectually troubling in many ways, from its cliches and stereotyped characters to its unwillingness to look into the dark corners its screenplay creates -- this is undeniable. What's also undeniable, however, is its abundant charm, much of which stems from those cliches and stereotypes -- we know from the beginning that the people we like will be victorious, and their campy eagerness is winning even as its cheapness rubs us the wrong way. And holding the whole mess together is Björnsson who, through sheer force of will, manages to cut through all the fluff and makes us care.