Mixing comedy and drama, Randal Kleiser's "It's My Party" is an emotionally candid chronicle of a young gay man with AIDS who decides to terminate his life while still in control of his faculties.

Mixing comedy and drama, Randal Kleiser’s “It’s My Party” is an emotionally candid chronicle of a young gay man with AIDS who decides to terminate his life while still in control of his faculties. Though not as accomplished or emotionally satisfying as “Longtime Companion,” the landmark 1990 AIDS drama, this star-studded studio release will probably do better than other indie pics about AIDS, but there’s still a question about its crossover appeal.

Pic feels like a highly personal work but is severely flawed because its narrative consists entirely of background detail, with no dramatic core to contain its multiple subplots and characters.

Nick Stark (Eric Roberts) is a successful young architect engaged in a long-term relationship with Brandon (Gregory Harrison), his handsome lover who’s equally devoted to his filmmaking career. When the story begins, Nick finds out that he’s HIV-positive and has a short time to live. His healthy companion freaks out, and after a series of fights they break up, though clearly they’re still very much in love. Rather than succumb to the disease’s debilitating effects, Nick decides to take charge. As a prelude to his death, he hosts a two-day farewell party to which he invites all his friends and family members.

With its loose-knit screenplay, dozens of characters (some actors play themselves), overlapping dialogue and sound and other devices, “It’s My Party” boasts an Altmanesque structure, but without Altman’s savvy or wit — it’s more “Ready to Wear” than “Nashville” or “Short Cuts.”

There are some wonderfully spontaneous and humorous sequences, but ultimately this movie of moments suffers from too much colorful periphery and not enough center. Once the core situation is established, the picture has nowhere to go, and what unfolds onscreen is a continuous parade of friends and guests who wander around the house, each getting a snippet of dialogue or a bitchy one-liner.

Pic’s only dramatic interest is to see at what point Brandon, who arrives uninvited, will apologize for his misconduct and declare anew his love for Nick. During the two-day event, the two cross paths several times, with the audience waiting impatiently for the big scene, their reunion. Once it arrives, the scene is emotionally effective: Observing Brandon carrying Nick in his arms to his deathbed will reduce many viewers to tears.

One of the yarn’s most interesting aspects is the contrast between Nick’s biological family and his “real” family, a group of friends that includes Tony (Paul Regina), a former b.f., and Charlene (Margaret Cho), the loyal friend who insists Brandon still belongs to the inner circle.

It may be a tribute to superlative acting that Nick’s blood family comes across as a loving, most caring unit, especially Nick’s divorced mother, Amalia (Lee Grant), and his sensitive sister, Daphne (Marlee Matlin). Some tension prevails when Nick’s father (George Segal), who had never accepted his son’s homosexuality, arrives and has to deal with his still bitter wife but very forgiving son.

Kleiser has managed to construct a tale that’s emotionally uplifting and, in moments, inspiring, without being overly sentimental. The lead characters are extremely engaging but two-dimensional — particularly Nick, who seems to accept his fate without any bitterness or anger. About half an hour of the film’s time is spent on Nick’s delivering personal farewells — and personal gifts — to his family and friends, with prolonged hugs and kisses.

In what seems like a comeback after a decade of mostly straight-to-video movies, Roberts acquits himself with a decent performance in the difficult role of a saintly man who has no rough edges. The highly photogenic Harrison does a better job of acting, though one wants to know more about his character, particularly during the breakup.

To his credit, Kleiser adds some unexpected dimensions to the couple’s split so that Brandon won’t appear utterly villainous. But devices like brief flashbacks are routinely and disappointingly used to sketch the couple’s happier times together.

Tech credits, particularly Bernd Heinl’s fluid camera and Ila Von Hasperg’s smooth editing, make for an intermittently enjoyable film, which in the hands of a different director could have been solemn and dreary.

It's My Party

Production

An MGM/UA release of a UA presentation of an Opala production. Produced by Joel Thurm, Randal Kleiser. Executive producers, Robert Fitzpatrick, Gregory Hinton. Directed, written by Randal Kleiser.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Bernd Heinl; editor, Ila Von Hasperg; music, Basil Poledouris; production design, Clark Hunter; costume design, Danielle King; associate producer, Dessie Markovsky; line producer, Harry Knapp; casting, Joel Thurm, Steven Fertig. Reviewed at MGM screening room, Santa Monica, Jan. 11, 1996. (In Sundance Film Festival -- premiere.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 110 MIN.

With

Nick Stark - Eric Roberts Brandon Theis - Gregory Harrison Amalia - Lee Grant Daphne - Marlee Matlin Tony - Paul Regina Charlene - Margaret Cho Monty - Bronson Pinchot Paul Stark - George Segal
With: Steven Antin, Bruce Davison, Devon Gummersall, Roddy McDowall, Olivia Newton-John.
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