Laughing at the Plague

Jeffrey masks its sentimentality with comic fizz

Watching Jeffrey is like drinking a diet soda — it's a succession of fizzy sips that leaves an odd aftertaste. The movie, adapted by Paul Rudnick from his 1993 off-Broadway play, often resembles a comedy revue whose skits, many of them screamingly funny, rush past breathlessly. But the main character, Jeffrey (Steven Weber) — a 30-ish gay New Yorker who forswears sex because in a time of plague “it just isn't fun anymore” — is a crashing bore despite his baby-blue bedroom eyes and fetching grin. Toward the end, the movie's comic effervescence bubbles away, leaving behind a flat blend of sentimentality and earnestness that belongs to another movie.

The entire enterprise seems dated. Gay men gave up sex (or tried to) 10 or 12 years ago, when it was obvious that something was terribly wrong but no one really knew what. Today, after more than a decade of research and studies, we have a fairly clear picture of the spectrum of HIV risk — which makes Jeffrey's blanket disavowal seem like self-indulgent hysteria. Even French kissing gets pitched overboard as part of his time-warp program of self-preservation. The movie may purport to be about the gay '90s, but for Hollywood it's still 1985.

Fair stands the wind for Jeffrey's course correction to neochastity. Then, at the gym (the public square of urban gay life), he meets Steven (Michael T. Weiss), and two hearts skip a beat. In a witty visual play on a stock gay-porn scene, Steven spots Jeffrey on the bench press, his overstuffed crotch poised above Jeffrey's face — just out of reach.

Jeffrey's best friend, the fabulous queen Sterling (Patrick Stewart), wants him to pursue the romance, not least because Sterling understands that Jeffrey wants to pursue it, despite his halting denials and excuse-making. Sterling gives great quip, but he's also realistic and wise; he lends the movie what little moral sense it has. Sterling's young lover, Darius (Bryan Batt), a dancer from Cats, has AIDS. The couple appear to handle the disease with equanimity, but Sterling has no patience for people like Jeffrey, who waste time they could spend seizing the day just because they know they have the luxury of time to waste.

Jeffrey raises the uncomfortable issue of the extent to which gay identity has been co-opted by AIDS. Can you really be gay if you don't have the disease? When Darius finally dies, Jeffrey's attempt to comfort Sterling in the hospital is curtly rejected. “You don't belong here,” Sterling says unemotionally, though an instant before he's weeping his eyes out against a sterile white wall. “This has nothing to do with you.”

Sterling's words seem to offer vague comfort — Don't worry, you'll be fine, you'll live to see another day — but Stewart delivers them with a perfect clipped coldness whose real message is “Get lost. Go back to Wisconsin, because you're a coward.”

The fact is Jeffrey is a coward, a whiner whose cloying charm — a combination of all-American good looks and a mouthful of clever rejoinders — doesn't wear well. Jeffrey makes an unappealing hero, and it is hard to care if he and Steven ever manage to connect.

Yet they nearly do. At Sterling's urging they make a dinner date, at the high point of a conversation that ends with Steven's disclosure that he's HIV-positive. When Jeffrey, eyes darting, assures him that it doesn't matter, it's awesomely clear that it's the only thing that does matter. Jeffrey backs out of the date by invoking the lame excuse of working late (he's a caterer waiting for his big acting break), and he does it by answering machine — a voice-mail rejection letter. As Steven plays back the message, he lip-syncs along with it, because Jeffrey's final kiss-off (“I'll call you”) is so depressingly beyond cliche.

The movie's boy-meets-boy plot device is creaky and unimaginative, the hole in the middle of a delicious doughnut of comic mania. Paul Rudnick is not, to say the least, a philosophical writer; like Oscar Wilde, he is an observer of the surface of things, and his inventive retellings of what he sees are usually hilarious.

Why, for instance, should a young gay man reborn to chastity not have a frank conversation with his parents about this new development in his sex life? In a split-screen daydream, with Mom on the extension in the kitchen, Jeffrey does.

“Have you checked out that new Jeff Stryker video, Power Tool II?” his father asks.

“How do you feel about shaved assholes?” inquires his mother.
“How about phone sex?” Dad wants to know. He lowers his voice slightly. “Are you alone?”

“What are you wearing?” Mom asks.
“I'm not having phone sex with you!” Jeffrey exclaims, and hangs up.
The first half of the movie is full of these sorts of wild riffs, and they contain many of the film's best performances. As a ball-busting self-help guru, Sigourney Weaver struts around the stage like a coked-up rock star, choosing hapless fuck-ups from her adoring audience to join her for some tough love.

When Jeffrey turns to the church for solace and guidance, he finds his ass being squeezed like a cantaloupe by a randy priest, Father Dan (Nathan Lane), who leads him to a locked cloister for some boy play. “But I thought you were supposed to be chaste!” says an incredulous Jeffrey.

“Perhaps you didn't hear me. I'm a Catholic priest,” Father Dan says with ruthless precision. He's not just horny, either; he's a devotee of Broadway musicals who adorns his confessional booth with posters of memorable shows and belts out his favorite songs from the pulpit like Ethel Merman in a frock.

The point of Jeffrey is to leaven the long grimness of AIDS with a shock of impertinent laughter, and to a considerable extent the movie succeeds. If it sometimes awkwardly juxtaposes raucous humor with earnest grief and horror, that's because life itself has already led the way. The subject matter demands of Paul Rudnick a certain gravity that's not his gift to give. But what he gives — mordant observations whose sparks ignite real laughter — he gives richly.

Jeffery opens

Fri, Aug. 4, at
the Lumiere
in S.F. and the
Act One/Two
in Berkeley.

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