For a film exploring the uncharted territory of the black gay experience in West Hollywood, Punks staggers in shallow water. The film is a kind of gay male Waiting to Exhale about a couple of brothers trying to wade through the singles scene. This ensemble comedy features characters whose lives seem to bump into one another, as opposed to intersect. While the dialogue-driven romantic comedy makes certain that pop cultural reference is spread thick (from Snoop Dog to Sister Sledge), character development is not. Punks is not unfunny, just uninteresting.
Punks (a slang term for gay men) begins as Hill (played with arched eyebrows by Dwight Ewell) prepares for his 30th birthday. He is forced to take stock of his life after catching his lover in mid-embrace at his own birthday party. He copes with the shock by dunking himself back in the singles stream. The focus of the film then shifts to that of Hill's photographer friend Marcus (Seth Gilliam), whose need to idealize relationships has left him lonely, watching life pass by his viewfinder. Marcus's repressed longings lift surprisingly (to him and not anyone else in the audience) when a new "straight" neighbor Darby (Jazzmun) makes the trek from New York to California.
The film's greatest flaw is not relying on a conventional narrative, but rather using essentially stock gay characters. Chris (Rockmond Dunbar), the drag queen Diva, and Dante (Renoly Santiago), the little Latin rich boy, are convincing enough, but Chris never moves past his posing and Dante never exhibits more than feistiness. Comedy does rely on types to generate humor. If one is going to play "We Are Family," however, during the closing credits without a shred of awareness that at this stage in human history, Sister Sledge is not something new and different on a soundtrack for a gay film, then there is definitely something amiss.
A crowd-pleasing film is fine. But Punks cannot find its bearing. The film suddenly sheds its feel-good wares and takes on the self-righteous pose of a safe-sex video. Issues such as AIDS and fidelity are thrown suddenly into the mix: The narrative becomes its own buzz kill. Granted a character's growth is the basis of any narrative, but there is a tremendous difference between a cyclical story line and one that chases its own tail.
First-time helmer and scribe Patrik-Ian Polk manages to capture some beautiful images, and the affection between actors appears genuine. But there is an overwhelming sense that you might have seen this movie before. For imagery it appears Polk has raided the celluloid closet. In his attempt to make a film that is accessible, he has overlooked the importance of constructing original characters.
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