Love, Valour, Convention

Love! Valour! Compassion!

Lagoon Cinema

EVERY MOVIE SHOULD be blessed with a title like Love! Valour! Compassion!. The three exclamation points proclaim their intentions so neatly: affection in all its variety; bravery of mixed degrees; and, that most valuable of emotions, empathy. Make a movie that lives up to this title and you've got a hit, whether it's a Samuel L. Jackson chase satire or a Glenn Close weeper.

Oddly enough, Love! Valour! Compassion! doesn't have much Valour!--though I noticed some Acrimony! and a little Resentment! too. Not to mention Style! and Taste! Yet while the title promises much, the delivery is incomplete. Maybe it's due to an extra-faithful translation; Terrence McNally adapted his own Tony-winning play, and the film brings over all but one of the play's actors, as well as Joe Mantello in a film-directing debut. For those who saw (or wish they'd seen) the play, the movie is a foregone and presumably welcome conclusion. For everyone else, the movie must be discovered and tested on its own merits.

Love! Valour! Compassion! uses the reliable gimmick of the group reunion: a narrative laboratory compacted by time and space. It's the foxhole/lifeboat cast of a war or disaster movie, the nostalgic boomers of The Big Chill, Spike Lee's guys who Get on the Bus, or the Canadian women who were detoured Strangers in Good Company. This time around the lab is populated by eight gay men meeting for three summer holiday weekends at a gorgeous country house outside New York.

The men are as various as life itself can be, which is usually the point of the exercise, if also a certain obstacle to any such movie. Recognizing the formula, the audience is left to decide whether it's all right that the tired thing has been trotted out again--and particularly whether a movie from a marginalized group should choose the crutch of a mainstream aesthetic. I wonder what Gregg Araki or Todd Haynes might have done with this screenplay. What McNally and Mantello have done is to take it straightfaced, dressing up stage-bound scenes with selected allusions to the indoor and outdoor collections of J. Crew, the Pottery Barn, and Smith & Hawken.

Clothes and decoration aren't a distraction, however. True to the formula, the story mostly involves anecdotal incidents of self-reflection, sexual jealousy, and other predictable talk-time subjects. Perry (Stephen Spinella) and Arthur (John Benjamin Hickey) are a suit-wearing couple with 14 years of fidelity under their belts; Arthur is so straight-seeming he laments that he actually can throw a ball, and hates opera too. Gregory (Stephen Bogardus) is the dancer/choreographer host. He stutters; his lover Bobby (Justin Kirk) is blind. Revolving at the periphery of this core foursome are Buzz (Jason Alexander, taking Nathan Lane's stage role), who lives for musicals and is dying; Ramon (Randy Becker), a hot young dancer; and John and James (both played by John Glover), English twins. John is Ramon's unpopular lover; James is newly arrived from England and is immediately adored by all. He's dying the worst of all.

Because most of these men are being encouraged to prepare a "Swan Lake" revue in pink tutus for an AIDS benefit the coming fall, there's a strong and familiar shadow over the events. But this artificial deadline isn't much of a plot. LVC! mainly explores difference within a community already defined as different, and for the most part does so honorably. (A valedictory voiceover from each character toward the end is most touching.) Glover is genuinely riveting in his twin roles, and Hickey and Spinella's function as "role models" gets both sardonic and affectionate treatment.

For some, I suppose the main draw here will be Jason Alexander: See the straight schlemiel from Seinfeld try out his drag act! Giggle at the interloper with his emasculated limp wrist and apron-only outfit! We'll have none of that, thank you; Alexander is a long-established trooper capable of more than George Costanza's weekly shortcomings. So while I can imagine what Nathan Lane did with Buzz on stage, it's both amusing and moving to see what Alexander does here. He convincingly shows what lies within a fluttery figure whose every public utterance seems to be shallow and self-deprecating.

Beyond these characters, though, the movie unravels into timeworn threads. Apart from some handsome real estate, what does Gregory have to offer? Why don't he and Ramon dance out their differences? Why does Ramon have to be so stupid? And, ultimately, why are these men friends in the first place? Are they a surrogate family because they want to be, or because sheer survival demands they have to be? The saddest but most likely answer is that they're all together because a message-wielding playwright requires it.

 
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