Terrence McNally’s Tony Award-winning “Love! Valour! Compassion!” is a perceptive, often hilarious look at love and life in the AIDS era. It is so sharply written and entertaining that in its stage-to-screen transfer the material easily overcomes its theatrical sensibility and the static direction of Joe Mantello, who also staged the Broadway production. Since virtually all the characters are gay men, and the milieu and humor are specific to the gay subculture, the movie has limited crossover appeal. Nonetheless, superlative ensemble acting should propel this Fine Line spring release to the level of success achieved by the most popular gay-themed movies to date, “Longtime Companion” and “Jeffrey.”
Mantello, who in his feature debut doesn’t reveal a particularly keen eye for the film medium, was greatly helped by his familiarity with the source material, and by the fact that McNally’s play was written in a relatively cinematic manner , with walks in the wood, swimming in the lake and other outdoor sequences built into the narrative. Still, McNally’s forte, as was demonstrated in other stage-to-screen adaptations of his work, “The Ritz” and “Frankie and Johnny” (neither of which was particularly exciting as a cinematic experience) is in writing witty dialogue that reflects the unique lifestyles of his characters.
With minor alterations, “Love! Valour! Compassion!” closely follows the stage production, whose three acts were structured around three long weekends — Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day — when eight gay men, seven of them white and one Latino, gather at a beautiful country house to celebrate the holidays. They share some painfully candid and humorous moments, which are inevitably dominated by concern with the lethal virus.
After a weak beginning, in which the host, Gregory (Stephen Bogardus), an aging dancer, narrates the history of his house, and we see a montage introducing his guests, a moving tale of diverse relationships unfolds onscreen. McNally doesn’t pretend to embrace the variety of contempo gay lifestyles, instead contenting himself with an insightful examination of white, upper-middle-class, middle-aged men.
Most of the characters are coupled: Gregory lives with the much younger Bobby (Justin Kirk), his attractive, blind lover; and John (John Glover), a nasty Brit hated by everyone, arrives with his latest flame, a Hispanic hunk, Ramon (Randy Becker), a not terribly educated dancer who projects overt sexuality no matter what he does or says. Longtime companions Arthur (John Benjamin Hickey) and Perry (Stephen Spinella), an accountant and lawyer, respectively, represent the most “straight” — and a bit dull — gay yuppies in attendance; they find it “very stressful” to function as role models in the gay community. Presiding over the group with his sharp tongue and incessant humor is musical-comedy buff Buzz (Jason Alexander), a chubby, balding guy who’s HIV-positive. In one of many touching moments, the tearful Buzz asks Perry, his oldest friend, to vow that he will hold his hand when he dies.
Not surprisingly, the two outsiders introduce tensions. Late one night, Ramon and Bobby engage in a sexual encounter that forces their respective partners to reassess their relationships. The arrival of James (also played by Glover), who cannot be more different from his misanthropic twin, John, provides a new companion for Buzz and a chance for a reconciliation between the two siblings.
In its good moments, which are plenty, “Love! Valour! Compassion!” brings to mind the hilarious exchanges in a Noel Coward comedy, the achingly intimate revelations in a Chekhov play, the wistful playfulness in a Sondheim musical. As a slice of life, the movie is always engaging, even when it betrays its theatrical origins.
Dialogue scenes, which are based on one-liners and well-timed entrances and exits, are statically staged by neophyte helmer Mantello, who doesn’t take full advantage of the cinematic vocabulary. One long sequence, in which each character describes his own death, should have been left in the editing room; it’s unnecessarily downbeat and arrests the otherwise natural flow of events. At the same time, this screen version contains some improvements over the play. There is less emphasis on frontal nudity, which was excessive onstage.
At once disciplined and exuberant, the ensemble acting is so felicitous that it’s not only difficult but downright unfair to single out any one performance for special praise. Still, though Nathan Lane’s edgy presence and notorious delivery of punch lines is missing here, Alexander (the only new member in the film’s cast) gives an honorable performance as the central, funny-sad character. Glover shines in the dual role of the twins, employing distinct voice and mannerisms for each part. Other members of the inspired cast all rise to the occasion: ogardus as the aging, stuttering dancer, Kirk as the erring lover, Becker as the Latino stud and Hickey and Spinella, as the most stable couple.
Tech credits are modestly serviceable and respectful of McNally’s text.