John Greyson’s new feature is a cheekily agitating “AIDS musical.” Juggling MTV-style numbers, intellectual in-jokes and very sexual politics, “Zero Patience” is — like the Canadian director’s prior “Urinal” and “The Making of ‘Monster’ “– often more impressive in conceptual daring than execution. Still, the climate is right for Greyson to expand his festival cult following to a limited arthouse audience.
Freewheeling scenario pivots around the controversial “Patient Zero” theory popularized in Randy Shilts’ 1987 book “And the Band Played On.”Some evidence (since heavily argued against by researchers) pointed toward a French-Canadian airline steward as the messenger whose sexual promiscuity first brought the disease to North America. Screenplay offers “Zero” (Normand Fauteux) as a “gay ghost” who abruptly materializes in a jacuzzi several years after his death. He sees old friends succumbing to illness and fighting back via activism.
But most of the action centers on his confrontation with Sir Richard Francis Burton (John Robinson), the 19th century English explorer-writer-translator. The latter has lived an extra 100 years to become chief “taxidermist and dioramacist” of Toronto’s Natural History Museum. Burton plots a Patient Zero exhibit as part of the Hall of Contagion. His initial motives are a crass affirmation of homo/AIDS-phobia, designed to “perpetuate bigotry and fetishize blame.”
But when the real P.Z. shows up, only Burton can see and hear him. As they become lovers, more enlightened views slowly dawn. In Greyson’s revisionist view , Patient Zero is revealed as the “heroic slut who inspired safe sex.”
The best song in Glenn Schellenberg’s generally frisky and well-sung rock score is the first, “Tell Me the Story of My Life,” a deliciously catchy pop tune neatly visualized with underwater ballet.
Finale scores with a well-edited musical ACT-UP museum invasion and rather poignant coda. Despite such episodes, “Zero Patience” suffers from somewhat monotonous cinematic imagination. Serious excess of closeups compound a claustrophobic feel. Cast is attractive but short on strong personalities and comic flair. Fauteux’s awkward Quebecois line readings are a liability.
Despite these flaws, “Zero Patience” is like little else in recent gay-themed cinema.