You'll Have a Gay Old Time

Early in Jeffrey, the big-screen version of Paul Rudnick's funny-sad off-Broadway play about a gay man wrestling with love and intimacy in the Nineties, there's a hilarious scene that neatly and astutely anticipates the film's commercial dilemma. Two male characters share a sloppy kiss. The camera cuts away to an imaginary movie theater where two heterosexual couples view the smooch with sharply divergent responses -- the girls swoon while their boyfriends grimace and bray with disgust. While there seems little doubt that Jeffrey will be a hit with gays -- it's acerbic and timely and should enjoy plenty of goodwill as a result of its successful theatrical run -- the film's crossover potential to the straight market is less predictable. Is mainstream America ready for a boy-meets-boy love story? And if so, is Jeffrey the one?

I bravely predict: Maybe. How's that for going out on a limb?
Author Rudnick (he adapted his play to the screen) and director Christopher Ashley have suffused the film with exuberant energy. If Jeffrey fails to connect with straight audiences, it won't be because the filmmakers played it safe. You won't find a single significant straight male character in the whole show, nor a female character -- gay, straight, or bi -- who rates more than one scene. It's about as far removed as a movie can get from politically correct, warmed-over breeder pandering such as Nine Months. The filmmakers are betting that U.S. audiences are grown-up enough to deal with the characters and the subject matter. Color me skeptical.

Fueling my skepticism is the fact that while I enjoyed the film's humor and howled at a few scenes, several other punch lines fell flat. The filmmakers try a grab bag of techniques and setups to elicit laughs, including freezing all the background action in one scene so that Jeffrey can talk directly into the camera. Sometimes the trickery works, sometimes it doesn't. And as if overcoming straight audiences' resistance to a movie about guys who love guys weren't enough of a challenge, Jeffrey is also a comedy about AIDS. Unlike, say, Philadelphia -- a pretty conventional terminal-illness tearjerker wrapped in a shroud of topicality -- Jeffrey approaches the subject not with lugubrious solemnity, but rather with irreverence and sass. Risk-averse it ain't.

Steven Weber of TV's Wings (he plays Brian Hackett, the womanizing smart-ass half of the brother-brother pilot duo) tests his leading-man potential as the film's title character, a waiter-aspiring actor whose fear of contracting AIDS vies with his sense that safety has taken the joy out of sex. Jeffrey opts for celibacy. His resolve is immediately tested, however, when he meets Steve (Michael T. Weiss), the macho-sensitive hunk who could be Jeffrey's Mr. Right. But Steve cannot pierce Jeffrey's carefully constructed shell of paranoia, and the prospects for their eventual coupling take a pronounced turn for the worse when Steve reveals that he is HIV-positive.

Weber's Jeffrey is a lot like his Brian Hackett -- breezy, glib, and horny in a yuppie bad boy kind of way. A likable lightweight, in other words. Jeffrey is not supposed to be a hero; Weber's insouciance is convincing. Unfortunately, this absence of a substantive principal character leaves a bit of a dramatic hole at the film's center. It's hard to get worked up over a guy who isn't willing to get worked up over anything himself.

Leaping to fill the void created by the character's lack of conviction and the leading actor's lack of magnetism, however, comes a hungry pack of unrestrained supporting hounds led by none other than Captain Jean-Luc Picard. Patrick Stewart and company supply the spice missing from Weber's watery broth. As a distinguished interior decorator named Sterling, Stewart plucks an impressive array of emotional arrows from his thespian quiver and finds the bull's-eye with damn near every one. From heedlessly campy to heart-wrenchingly grief-stricken, Stewart's aim is dead-on. Equally dazzling in smaller roles are Sigourney Weaver as an over-the-top self-help evangelist and Nathan Lane as a libidinous Catholic priest with a taste for young flesh and old show tunes. Robert Klein, Kathy Najimy, and Olympia Dukakis all pitch in with shtick of their own. And Rudnick's screenplay, while uneven, liberally doles out enough one-liners to feed even the most swollen egos.

So the experiment begins. Will Jeffrey's reliance on wisecracks and irony make it the first big-budget openly gay production to cross over successfully to mainstream audiences? I hope so. AIDS isn't funny. Jeffrey is.

 
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