'Jeffrey' quips a lot, trips a little

September 08, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Just what we needed least: A gay sitcom about AIDS.

The movie is "Jeffrey," which opens today at the Charles, an antic version of Paul Rudnick's play about a young gay man who attempts to come to terms with the disease that haunts his culture and his life. But unlike any of the mournful Kaddishes for the world of AIDS that have preceded it, this one is played fast and loopy, more like a college black-out comedy in a coffeehouse than a structured comedy. It speaks loudly with a great big shtick.

But it would be a lot easier to dislike if it weren't so darned funny.

A quip-o-rama from the get-go, it watches as poor Jeffrey, a New York actor, falls in love with a bartender named Steve but fights his own romantic impulses and denies the true feelings of his heart because he's decided to give up sex.

So the true battle is interior. In some ways the film feels a little like those old Doris Day-Rock Hudson comedies of the early '60s, where Doris was so rigid she couldn't let go, even with the man she clearly loved, even if she never figured out that the Rockman was privately gay.

So Jeffrey (Steven Weber of TV's "Wings," his natural macho volatility somewhat toned down), wanders through his life trying to figure out what to do next, and never doing much. It's an interesting life, though, made to seem manic by an active fantasy life in which the movie simply stops and some theme from his hyper-fervid id comes bubbling out. These sequences are almost always funny.

The best even speaks to some degree of repression. Jeffrey imagines what would happen if he had a "real" talk with his mom and dad and they truly understood his plight. The results, with two deadpan, pitch-perfect actors (Peter Maloney and Debra Monk) playing Wisconsin burghers who speak frankly about some reality of homosexual life from their cuddly little suburban split-level, are truly hysterical. It also suggests that maybe there are some things mom 'n' dad shouldn't know about, for everybody's sake!

Another of Jeffrey's fantasies lights up the movie as well: He imagines himself as a contestant on a TV show called "It's Only Sex," where Robert Klein is the sleazy master of ceremonies, another stitch and a half.

The film does suffer from some particular uglinesses, however, which I found surprising, considering the source. One is the constant presence of Patrick Stewart -- yes, Captain Jean-Luc Picard of "Star Trek" fame -- Jeffrey's landlord (in a lush townhouse) and nonromantic friend and adviser. Possibly it's that Stewart is such a powerhouse actor that he all but blows poor Weber off the screen.

The role is also problematic at the conceptual level. Stewart's Sterling is an interior decorator, the cliched profession of the gay man, but he camps and vamps so much that the portrait is cruel and cartoonized rather than heart-felt and moving. It's like a great subtly queer turn in a '40s movie by Clifton Webb, all nancy-boy poses and lifted eyebrows and Bette Davis phrasings.

Then there's Sterling's paramour, a dancer (in "Cats") named Darius (Bryan Batt). Darius is dumb. He's cute. He's a toy, nonthreatening, amusing, handsome. He's simply a boy version of the blond trophy bimbo that used to be big in mainstream movies. But in that mainstream, this figure has all but disappeared because it's so flamboyantly sexist. Shouldn't it die in the gay cinema too?

Finally, there's Jeffrey's true love, Steve, played by Michael T. Weiss. I have no idea and no curiosity if these two actors are gay or not, but from the text of the film I have to assume that they really aren't. There's a kind of emotional distance here, as if they're trying to subtly communicate their own straightness under the camouflage of the gay roles. It's somehow unsettling, as if the actors themselves don't quite believe in the project.

"Jeffrey"

Starring Steven Weber and Patrick Stewart

Directed by Christopher Ashley

Released by Orion Classics

Rated R (profanity, sexual suggestion)

** 1/2

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