Tom of Finland could use more porno cheek

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      Starring Pekka Strang. In Finnish, German, and English, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable

      Although still too polite by at least 12 inches, the best parts of this distinctly tasteful biopic take place early on, when a young Touko Laaksonen must reckon with his sexuality on the battlefield during the Second World War. As a phalanx of Finnish soldiers take a refreshing skinny-dip in an icy river, and a further phalanx of swinging cocks is kept discreetly out of frame, our hero looks up to see a superior officer giving him the subtlest of signals.

      Focusing on the codes, gestures, and other furtive forms of covert communication that defined the queer underground in conservative postwar Helsinki is what Tom of Finland does well, especially with its shrewd lead performance by Pekka Strang. (Think half Tom Hiddleston, half David Thewlis.)

      Still, this is Finland’s candidate for the 2017 Oscar, so it isn’t about to push the envelope too much, even if its subject’s splendid portraits of grotesquely overendowed (or so I hear) beefcake pioneered a kind of avant-porn, and invented wholesale the militantly out-of-the-closet leather-boy vibe of the ’70s.

      A successful commercial artist 20 years earlier, Laaksonen secretly produced cartoonish images of rutting hunks that he’d pass to possible conquests, sometimes taking a punch in the face for his efforts, other times, more happily, receiving a bobbing head on his Lapland. This is how he first meets Veli (Lauri Tilkanen), the eventual love of his life and a further blow to equally smitten sister Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky), who only just tolerates her brother’s “sickness”.

      Tom of Finland briefly moves to California when Laaksonen’s fortunes begin to rise in the ’70s, but it becomes a weak-tea Boogie Nights along the way. The film has a neat way of dramatizing how the artist subverted authority figures (and his own war trauma) into superfetishized erotica—there’s plenty of cop in those pictures—but the latter half is about flag-waving. Grappling with Laaksonen’s creative block during the AIDS crisis is necessary, but a cutesy shout-out to same-sex marriage is so out of context here that it almost wrecks the film, which has otherwise become bored with its own conventionality.

      With a body of work this deeply humorous (porno-cheek, maybe?), why would Tom of Finland want to play it so straight?

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