The qualities one likes best about Bill Sherwood's "Parting Glances" (Friday at the Beverly Center Cineplex) are its immaculate, flashing wit, its easy grace and the nimble but compassionate way it deals with a potentially explosive subject--in this case, a 24-hour crisis in the lives of three gay young Manhattanites, one of whom is dying of AIDS.
It's a subject that could have been maudlin, fraught with self-pity, drenched with bathos. (It also could have achieved a bleak tragedy it never reaches here.) Since Sherwood was working on a slim budget, it could also have been technically shoddy or badly acted; one of those films you feel you have to encourage out of duty.
Happily, it's none of those. You can fault "Parting Glances," but only because not all its moments hit the same level. Occasionally it may seem too "inside"; some of the characters too tartly or condescendingly drawn; the romance too glossy.
Even Sherwood's strongest suit--that special, rapid-fire, slightly acidic Manhattan homosexual wit--can get a little wearing:like a juggler who keeps the balls flying constantly and never teases the audience with a near miss.
But it's an excellent first film, anyway--surprising, poignant, deeply disturbing. Sherwood, once a classical music student of Elliott Carter's (and later a USC film grad), conceives the whole story in lyric, comic terms. The undertones are dark, but the surface has a paradoxical lightness and blitheness: "gaiety" in both senses of the word.
The whole movie is keyed to its musical underscoring (from disco to opera, Bronski Beat to Brahms) and, as you might guess, the music helps shape the story. The tone is slightly Mozartean: You're reminded a little of "The Marriage of Figaro" seen through the prism of the Requiem, a mixture of deep sorrow and brilliant melody. (At one time, Sherwood throws in a gag nightmare inspired by "Amadeus.")
The central character is Michael (Richard Ganoung), an acerbic young editor about to lose two lovers--one temporarily, because of a job transfer to Africa; the other permanently, to disease and death. Michael's lovers are so dissimilar they might represent a fleshed-out schizophrenia. Robert (John Bolger), the healthy one, is as stolidly handsome and emotionally opaque as the GQ layout he often resembles. Even his job (health administration) suggests firmness, respectability; and the rooms they share suggest the orderly, sunny, perfectly vacuumed confines of a happily married couple.
In contrast, the dying lover, Nick (Steve Buscemi), is a rock musician. He has a ravaged, gaunt, elfin face that reminds you of a skinny Oscar Levant--Levant as stand-up comedian in blue jeans and leather jacket. (Buscemi, in fact, is a New York comic.) Nick's apartment is a genial mess--raffish confusion with a dozen television sets; it may be a clue that both dwellings were actually shot in the same place, sections of a single large apartment.
There's an irony here: Robert seems to represent a kind of romantic fantasy, a fashion-magazine, hunkish perfection that makes you a little uneasy, even though the character is written and acted well. Nick, however, is Michael's truer companion--and, given his own flair for invective, perhaps the truer part of himself: the rebellious, artistically fertile side. And it's Nick's outlaw stance (the opposite of Robert's) that's helped to kill him--his fatalism, promiscuity, "trashing it up."
The narcissism of some homosexual relationships has a tragic edge here. Michael obviously isn't kidding or assuaging a dying friend when he tells Nick he's the only person he ever loved. He's watching himself die as well as his friend: his past, his alter ego--all those fragments of Nick's character (like the sarcastic humor) that he's appropriated. Left with Robert, he might have a sweet, dull life, as Nick occasionally reminds him; Nick is the wild side that self-destructed.
Sherwood doesn't present any of this in bald or portentous terms. He shows it in a series of jokes and japes, as Nick does--little digs that reveal the truth by sending it up. The special flavor of gay humor has rarely been caught so well on film. It's as if Wilde, Coward or Albee suddenly threw the wraps off, set their parties in their own milieu.
The signal triumph of "Parting Glances"--almost a great sequence--is the long going-away soiree thrown for Robert and Michael by their artist buddy, Joan (Kathy Kinney). It has a terrific panache: the elegantly crisscrossing conversations, erotic byplay, a snap and ebullience that keep the counterpointing undercurrents of death and loss never too far absent.
Sherwood's dialogue is the kind you rarely find anymore--outside of Woody Allen, Robert Towne or Elaine May. It has a literate gleam and sparkle, and his cast of newcomers form a really engaging, deft ensemble. They're all good--and Buscemi, at his best, is almost scaldingly memorable. He gives the film much of its flavor: glancing jabs of laughter squeezed up against fate and death.
The pathos occasionally gets sugary, but the wit is mostly unerring. And that wit--with its veins of human guttiness and perception--creates a core of hope. It's like a small match-flare of light against an immensity of darkness--with mortality, plague, romantic loss always hovering on the edges. At its worst, "Parting Glances" (Times-rated: Mature) is a little arch, but at its best it has a vivifying humanity and a humor so bright it cauterizes pain.