Ashley, who directed the original stage play and makes his movie debut here, doesn’t always seem comfortable with the medium. But he certainly knows the material: The film is uncompromisingly gay and unapologetic
about celebrating lives while surrounded by death.
But a more confident directorial hand might have resisted the film-school reliance on title cards, slow motion glances and action frozen to allow character asides to the audience, and it certainly would have brushed away the obvious lapse in judgment that comes with the first passionate kiss between the two male leads: Ashley cuts to a shot of a movie audience’s stunned reaction, a self-conscious ploy that prompts an easy laugh but does nothing to close the distance between the movie’s characters and the real audience.
Opening with a montage of Gotham locales, complete with “Manhattan”-like fireworks, the film quickly moves to fireworks of a different sort — two men rigorously going at it under the sheets. One of the men is Jeffrey (Steven Weber), who stops abruptly with the mood-killing pronouncement, “It broke.” Condom panic ensues, as does a quick-cut series of similarly disastrous and comic sexual encounters, all prompting Jeffrey to make his anti-sex decision. No sooner has he gone on the sexual wagon of course, then Jeffrey meets the man of his dreams, Steve (Michael T. Weiss), an amiable HIV-positive hunk whose initial gym workout with the hapless and horny Jeffrey is none-too-subtly infused with sexual tension. Jeffrey naturally runs scared, and much of the film follows the pursuit-rejection mating dance of the two men.
Along the episodic way, Jeffrey attends a socialite’s country-themed “Hoedown for AIDS” (with Christine Baranski hilarious as the hostess in cowgirl garb), a New Age revival meeting (with Sigourney Weaver as a Marianne Williamson clone and Kathy Najimy as her pathetic acolyte), and New York’s gay-pride parade, where Jeffrey encounters a supremely tacky New Jersey mother (Olympia Dukakis) marching in pride of her “pre-operative transsexual lesbian son.” Nathan Lane appears briefly as a gay, sex-crazed Catholic priest whose sermon to Jeffrey draws more on Broadway musicals than the Bible. Other cameos pepper the mix.
Onstage, the sketches worked wonders, each seeming to top the previous and forming a surprisingly cohesive whole. Here, the bits are hit and miss. The Lane and Baranski routines capture the flavor of the original, but despite the best efforts of Weaver and Dukakis, their routines simply don’t translate very well. Even less effective is a recurring gag in which Mother Teresa (Irma St. Paule) appears to Jeffrey during times of crisis. Although the saintly appearances provide at least one terrific line (“Oh please, she’s had work done,” sniffs Patrick Stewart’s Sterling, Jeffrey’s effete best friend and the film’s stand-out), what seemed endearingly whimsical onstage appears strained on the bigscreen.
Story’s sober moments prove even more elusive, and could have benefited from considerable understatement. Jeffrey’s abrupt turnaround, in which he decides to take the love plunge, comes after the death — and ghostly appearance — of a secondary character. The saccharin visitation will have as many eyes rolling as watering.
Fortunately, the terrific ensemble cast, headed by a charming Weber, sees the picture through its lesser moments and Rudnick’s barbs and one-liners score even when their contexts don’t. Despite decent tech credits and location shoots, neither Ashley nor cinematographer Jeffrey Tufano take full advantage of New York’s gay locales: Where’s the street life? The vibrancy and grit of Chelsea and the West Village? A film as life-embracing as “Jeffrey” should have shown more of it.