“Jeffrey,” the popular Paul Rudnick gay romantic comedy, makes the transition from stage to screen so awkwardly that its heavy-handed flamboyance threatens to subvert its brave and important message: “Hate AIDS, love life!”
Some genuinely funny lines do sparkle, and there are some staunch portrayals (especially by Patrick Stewart) as well as truly poignant moments, but they’re all but overwhelmed by an overdose of raucous, bitchy, sledge-hammered camp humor.
Although the film is abundantly affectionate in its depiction of gays--stereotypical and otherwise--it is no more successful a screen adaptation than the clunky film version of Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song Trilogy.”
Rudnick, who adapted his own play, and Christopher Ashley, the play’s director in his film debut, don’t seem to grasp the need to scale down performances and to rethink the entire play in visual terms or how to control tone. It’s axiomatic that the more theatrical its material, the more visually stylish a film must be to sustain it.
“Jeffrey” is wildly uneven, and it aims at the lowest common denominator in its exceedingly broad comedy. It’s like the difference between experiencing a fine production of “Steel Magnolias” on stage and its overblown film version.
The film opens with its most effective device, a montage showing how gay waiter/aspiring Manhattan actor Jeffrey (Steven Weber) discovers his love life withering away out of an escalating, all-consuming fear of AIDS.
Just when he’s sworn off sex, he meets at his gym a hairy-chested, sweet-natured hunk named Steve (Michael T. Weiss), who experiences love at the first sight of Jeffrey. Right away, there’s a credibility problem: Jeffrey is an ordinary-looking guy with a rather colorless personality aside from his fear of sex, whereas Steve is a spectacular-looking, macho but tender man. You have to wonder why Steve, who is in fine health but has been HIV-positive for five years, bothers with the diffident, retreating Jeffrey.
As Jeffrey and Steve skirmish, Rudnick and Ashley take us on a tour of Manhattan gay life--a gay parade, an AIDS fund-raising ball with an outrageous dancing waiter sequence and hosted by a shrill Christine Baranski, a strident cameo by Olympia Dukakis as the loud-and-proud mother of a “preoperative transsexual lesbian son,” and a frenetic encounter with a lecherous Broadway musical-lover, gay priest-philosopher (Nathan Lane).
There’s also a fantasy game show “It’s Just Sex,” hosted with apt unctuousness by Robert Klein, plus a funny turn by Sigourney Weaver as a bullying, double-talking New Age evangelist who tries to buffalo a troubled acolyte (Kathy Najimy) as well Jeffrey. (At one point Jeffrey is cared for by Mother Teresa after a gay bashing.)
The film spends much of its best time, however, with Stewart as a hilariously acerbic but strong and gallant interior designer whose young lover Darius (Bryan Batt), a “Cats” chorus boy, is bravely slipping from HIV-positive to full-blown AIDS. Peter Bartlett has a nifty, comical cameo as a waspish casting director.
Weber was probably cast as Jeffrey because he has an Everyman look with which many people can identify, straight or gay, but Jeffrey is so nerdy, it’s hard to go along with the film’s great concern for him as to whether or not he flees home to Wisconsin.
As Steve, Weiss has terrific presence and real potential, but like most of the cast, has been directed as if he were playing under a proscenium instead of for the camera. “Jeffrey” certainly has enough going for it to connect with easily pleased audiences, but is sure to disappoint more demanding moviegoers, straight or gay.
* MPAA rating: R, for strong sexuality and language. Times guidelines: In addition to strong language, the film has much blunt talk about sex (rather than actual lovemaking).
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Steven Weber: Jeffrey
Patrick Stewart: Sterling
Michael T. Weiss: Steve
Bryan Batt: Darius
An Orion Classics release of a Workin’ Man Films production in association with the Booking Office. Director Christopher Ashley. Screenwriter/co-producer Paul Rudnick; based on his own play. Producers Mark Balsam, Mitchell Maxwell and Victoria Maxwell. Executive producer Kevin McCollum. Cinematographer Jeffery Tufano. Editor Cara Silverman. Costumes David C. Woolard. Music Stephen Endelman. Production designer Michael Johnston. Set decorator Andrew Baseman. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.
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