Just about everything in helmer-penned screenplay echoes elements in other recent queer comedies, but the evident joy in translating those conventions to a primarily black social context is giddy and infectious. Things start off naughtily with leads, poolside avec cocktails, rating the bed-worthiness of various showbiz names, from Ricky Martin to Busta Rhymes. Even homophobia-spewing rap icons get dished or dissed. After all, it's West Hollywood --- what else is there to talk about but celebrity sex appeal?

Just about everything in helmer-penned screenplay echoes elements in other recent queer comedies, but the evident joy in translating those conventions to a primarily black social context is giddy and infectious. Things start off naughtily with leads, poolside avec cocktails, rating the bed-worthiness of various showbiz names, from Ricky Martin to Busta Rhymes. Even homophobia-spewing rap icons get dished or dissed. After all, it’s West Hollywood — what else is there to talk about but celebrity sex appeal?

Outside their fertile imaginations, however, the four central friends aren’t really seeing much action. Fashion photog Marcus (Seth Gilliam), scared off one-night stands by AIDS paranoia and a hopeless romantic besides, pines for his as-yet-unmet Mr. Right. At his 30th birthday fete, Hill (Dwight Ewell) discovers long-term Gallic b.f. Gilbert (Rudolf Martin) getting way too French with a party guest; an ugly split ensues. Drag diva Chris (Jazzmun) claims a steady beau whom no one’s ever seen. The group’s youngster, Latino rich kid Dante (Renoly Santiago), is on the one-trick-a-day diet.

Cheerfully over-the-top as a unit, the quartet doesn’t seem quite so happy in private. Chris is letting an outsize ego break up her lip-synch ensemble, which performs tracks by glittersome late-’70s disco group Sister Sledge at the club where everyone hangs out. Moving into Marcus’ pad, Hill outwardly revels in revisiting single life. But when not kicking last night’s pickup outta bed, he pines for a duly chastened Gilbert.

Meanwhile, Marcus is agog when mega-hunk music producer Darby (Rockmond Dunbar) moves in next door — and increasingly agitated when latter keeps sending mixed signals, despite a live-in g.f. (Vanessa Williams).

Diversionary flirtations, a health scare for HIV-positive Hill and plenty of wildly costumed production numbers by Chris’ group fill a brisk but predictable narrative before several inevitable occurrences. Last lap could be tighter, and epilogue a bit punchier; there’s scant surprise in climactic “revelation” re Darby.

Still, pace is consistently lively, performances winning, if a tad overpumped in early going. Production’s A-list connections are evident in the starry soundtrack roster exec producer “Babyface” Edmonds has assembled, as well as in clips of gay-friendly R&B divas Diana Ross (in her ’75 glam-apex screen vehicle “Mahogany”) and Janet Jackson. Lensing and other tech-package aspects are solidly pro, though more stylish design contribs might have shot pic’s considerable energy even higher.

Punks

Production

An E2 Filmworks presentation of a Tall Skinny Black Boy production. Produced by Patrik-Ian Polk, Tracy E. Edmonds, Michael McQuarn. Executive producer, Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds. Co-producer, Robi Reed-Humes. Directed, written by Patrik-Ian Polk.

Crew

Camera (color), Rory King; editor, Anne Misawa; music, the Whole Nine; production designer, Liana Reed; art director, Aaron Smith; costumes, Linda Stokes; sound (Dolby Digital), Darren Brady; choreographer, Marguerite Pomerhn Derricks; makeup, Klexius Colby; assistant director, Damon Murphy; casting, Robi Reed-Humes, Doran Reed. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (American Spectrum), Jan. 27, 2000. Running time: 104 MIN.

With

Marcus ..... Seth Gilliam Hill ..... Dwight Ewell Darby ..... Rockmond Dunbar Chris ..... Jazzmun Dante ..... Renoly Santiago Health Counselor ..... Loretta Devine Jennifer ..... Vanessa Williams Felicity ..... Devon O'Dessa Gilbert ..... Rudolf Martin Though in outline it's basically the same I-need-a-man gay date movie we've seen a lot of lately ("Trick," "Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss," "Relax ... It's Just Sex," "Jeffrey"), "Punks" differs in one crucial respect: It's the first such film by, about and for African-American gay men. That breakthrough alone should cause considerable queues in urban markets. But first-time helmer Patrik-Ian Polk's feature is slick, ingratiating and high-spirited enough to win over gay men of all colors. Niche theatrical prospects look bright both at home and in gay markets abroad.
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