Review: ‘Jeffrey’

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

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.


(Comedy -- Color)


An Orion Classics release of a Workin' Man Films presentation, in association with the Booking Office. Produced by Mark Balsam, Mitchell Maxwell, Victoria Maxwell; executive producer, Kevin McCollum; co-producer, Paul Rudnick; co-executive producers, Dan Markley, Andrea Pines, Mike Skipper. #Directed by Christopher Ashley. Screenplay, Paul Rudnick, based on his play. Camera (Technicolor), Jeffery Tufano; editor, Cara Silverman; music , Stephen Endelman; production design, Michael Johnston; set decoration, Andrew Baseman; costume design, David C. Woolard; sound, Matthew Price; choreography, Jerry Mitchell; assistant director, Bobby Wilson; line producer, Harry Knapp; casting, Marcia Shulman. #Reviewed at Joseph Papp Public Theater as part of the 1995 New York Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, N.Y., June 10, 1995. MPAA rating: R. Running time: 92 min. Jeffrey ... Steven Weber Steve ... Michael T. Weiss Mother Teresa ... Irma St. Paule Sterling ... Patrick Stewart Skip Winkley ... Robert Klein Ann Marwood Bartle ... Christine Baranski Darius ... Bryan Batt Debra Moorhouse ... Sigourney Weaver Father Dan ... Nathan Lane Mrs. Marcangelo ... Olympia Dukakis The glittering blend of disparate elements that made Paul Rudnick's "Jeffrey" an Off Broadway gem several seasons back don't throw off quite the same sparkle on the bigscreen. Onstage, the story of a 30-ish gay New Yorker who has sworn off sex careened from broad (and hilarious) sketch comedy to scissors-sharp camp wit and was underscored by a touch of poignance and humanity. Onscreen, "Jeffrey" doesn't so much careen as amble, a pleasant stroll over flat terrain. Despite high-profile cameos and Rudnick's indisputable way with a one-liner, pic seems an unlikely candidate for big crossover theatrical success, yet it's altogether too tame for celebrated status on the arthouse circuit. While Rudnick's screenplay faithfully charts the episodic course of his play , the ensemble of cartoonish characters that brightened the stage here seems smothered, or at least softened, by the literalness of the


Camera. And if much of Rudnick's humor survives intact, the same can't be said for the story's more serious moments, which under the close-up-heavy scrutiny of Christopher Ashley's direction, come off as melodramatic and syrupy.

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