Love! Valour! Compassion!
Directed by Joe Mantello. Written by Terrence McNally, from his play. Starring Jason Alexander, Randy Becker, Stephen Bogardus, John Glover, John Benjamin Hickey, Justin Kirk, and Stephen Spinella. Opens Friday, May 16, at the Kabuki.
No doubt about it: In movies, the grading curve is more lenient than ever. Knowing I was in the mood for multiplex fare, a friend pulled me into Romy and Michele's High School Reunion thinking it was that other high-school-reunion movie, Grosse Pointe Blank. After about three minutes, the undiluted awfulness of this film, hailed by the New York Times and the Washington Post, had exerted a hypnotic power. I was no fan of the trendsetting airhead comedy Clueless, but that cheerful flick was The Lady Eve compared to Romy and Michele, a post-high school Clueless done by filmmakers who really are clueless, who don't have a wisp of an idea of how to set a tone or sustain a character.
Then I went to an advance screening of Sprung -- and it was worse. According to producer/co-writer Darin Scott, this attempt at romantic comedy encompasses attitudes held not "just by black people, but all people in the '90s who play the dating game." But it's an amateur hour-and-45 minutes.
The director and co-writer, Rusty Cundieff (Tales From the Hood), can be a funny man. His Fear of a Black Hat was a fearless, scatological gangsta-rap parody. And for Michael Moore's late series TV Nation, Cundieff did a splendid minifilm about buying white folk in Mississippi just before the Legislature finally declared slavery illegal. The segment culminated with teary-eyed white slaves waving farewell as they headed from the comfort and security of indentured life into the great unknown of Freedom.
On the evidence of Sprung, Cundieff would be better off sticking to lampoons. This busted spring of a movie should have launched a frontal assault on lame buppie farces (like Livin' Large and Boomerang) rather than joining their ranks. The picture is about two sets of couples: the classy and the crass. Montel (played by Cundieff), a sensitive photographer, and Brandy (Tisha Campbell), a levelheaded law clerk, fall into a gooey kind of love. That incenses their lowdown best friends: Montel's homeboy, Clyde (Joe Torry), an insecure chain-restaurant manager, and Brandy's homegirl, Adina (Paula Jai Parker), a gold digger who falls into bed with Clyde when she buys his lies about a Porsche and a big bank account. Adina exacts revenge for Clyde's deceptions, then spends the rest of the movie reheating for him while they break up Brandy and Montel -- and put them back together again. (For official definitions of "homeboy" and "homegirl," see below.)
Instead of razzing buppie movies for their otherworldly cartoonishness, Cundieff makes his film more of a cartoon than any of them. Brandy and Adina visualize the males at a party as two-legged dogs (in other words, Cundieff literalizes the best riff from She's Gotta Have It). Adina scans the likeliest bowwows and evaluates the goods with a superimposed computer scanner like the Terminator's. Animated tweetie birds dance around Clyde's head after Adina knocks him out. The moviemaking and writing are so crude that when Brandy tells Montel that he could be another Gordon Parks -- and he says he'd like to make a film about black people without guns -- you want someone to leap out of nowhere and knock the two of them upside the head.
Cundieff thinks this is the film Montel has dreamed about. That's just sad. The movie stops cold whenever the cultured Montel and Brandy moon over each other; Clyde and Adina's plot to engineer their split becomes an act of mercy for the audience. But then these true lovers are even more boring as love-scarred singles, so viewers still sensate at the 80-minute mark will root for them to reunite. Cundieff strews the film with good intentions, both aesthetic (a stab at courtliness in a dance pavilion) and political (bits of dialogue and byplay about shades of skin color and ambition). As a director, he doesn't have the chops to bring it off. And as a performer, Cundieff's presence is endearing yet weak; he lets the clowns dominate the movie, if not exactly "steal" it. Stealing Sprung would be petty theft at best.
A slang glossary worked PR wonders for Clueless. Maybe that's why the press kit for Sprung includes a page and a half of "Sprung Speak," defining not just the title ("Sprung -- in love or infatuated with another person"), but entries like "Homeboy" ("Male best friend"), "Homegirl" ("Female best friend"), "Your Boy" ("Same as Homeboy"), "Your Girl" ("Same as Homegirl"), and even the word "Weak" ("Same as Webster's meaning").
Picking up the press kit for the new gay comedy-drama Love! Valour! Compassion! I was primed to find a dictionary noting the multiple meanings of "queen." Of course, this enterprise is too self-consciously tasteful to commit a similar faux pas. Terrence McNally's Tony Award-winning work has been called "one of the major plays of our time." Moviegoers who aren't stage-struck may wonder, "What's the fuss?" Reviewing another McNally-based movie, Frankie and Johnny, six years ago, The New Yorker's Terrence Rafferty described the style that McNally and the director adopted for that picture as "a kind of sitcom classicism whose indispensable elements are a wacky workplace filled with benign eccentrics and an apartment building with at least one resident capable of bursting into the main character's apartment and reeling off a string of tart one-liners." The same could be said of Love! Valour! Compassion!, except that McNally and his current director, Joe Mantello, modify their sitcom format for the domesticated mid-'90s. Characters as cozy as the dramatis personae of Friends ritually pile into the woody lakeside estate of a stuttering choreographer named Gregory (Stephen Bogardus) to celebrate Memorial Day, July Fourth, and Labor Day.
Buzz, a musical-comedy queen played by Seinfeld's Jason Alexander, is the resident most capable of reeling off a string of tart one-liners. But nearly all of them enjoy a verbal dust-up, including Gregory's blind, youthful lover, Bobby (Justin Kirk), and a stable professional couple -- a ridiculously wholesome accountant, Arthur (John Benjamin Hickey), and a jaundiced lawyer, Perry (Stephen Spinella). The man they love to hate, a loathsome British-born composer, John Jeckyll (John Glover), introduces the odd men out who generate what passes for dramatic tension -- a dancer named Ramon (Randy Becker), who might as well have "Hot Stuff" stamped on his forehead, or his bottom; and John's twin brother, James (also played by Glover), an angelic AIDS-sufferer who sheds sweetness and light over the sourest, darkest occasions.
I enjoyed Frankie and Johnny because performers like Michelle Pfeiffer and Kate Nelligan took McNally's playable (if shopworn) lines way out on their own emotional limbs. But Love! Valour! Compassion! is a by-the-numbers ensemble piece: It doesn't give the cast any room to mine fresh revelations. What we get are packaged epiphanies, like John's aria about the defining bondage episode of his youth. One by one, the characters come out with hidden fears and traumas, just as they do in the "You'll laugh! You'll cry!" climax, when they each emerge from a Swan Lake chorus line to relate how they will die. Tchaikovsky never had it so pathetique.
Although Ramon drives everybody crazy, the movie ultimately demonstrates that tender companionship trumps hot sex, and that the only immortality derives from the survival of good feeling. Were it not for the male nudity and the wisecracks, it would be hard to distinguish Love! Valour! Compassion! from those homespun comforters that wind up on the Hallmark Hall of Fame at holidays. Director Mantello states the defense for this movie when he says, "It's very much about what it is like for men to be affectionate with one another ... to be incredibly comfortable with one another physically."
But when Mantello says, "There are certain things that make gay relationships different, that require a certain very specific set of inter-relational skills," he loses me. What can he be talking about on the basis of this movie? The capacity to banter? The tolerance of sexual peccadilloes? I'd be more involved in the movie if it did elucidate gay life for straights like me. But the filmmakers are caught between portraying gay denizens of the middle class as nothing more than exceptionally droll bourgeoisie and sentimentalizing them as members of their own medically and socially imperiled species. The aura of melancholy mutes the movie, and dates it -- Love! Valour! Compassion! now seems so pre-Ellen, so 1995.
Supporters of humdrum special-interest cinema often argue that theatrical cliches and stereotypes can be renewed simply by altering their race, nationality, or sex. But as thin puddings like this movie prove, it actually takes energy, invention, or talent. Homosexuality aside, Love! Valour! Compassion! is just On Golden Pond with better jokes -- an old-fashioned three-act let's-face-our-mortality play, adorned with an AIDS ribbon.