Happy start of the Olympics, everybody! Sure, according to a few reports out there, the city of Sochi might not be quite ready for the international spotlight, but what can you expect? It’s not like they had years to get everything in order after winning the bid. With the Olympics in Russia firmly in mind, it only makes sense to review a film such as the one I’ve chosen for today. It’s got heart. It doesn’t want to give up. It’s a gay romantic comedy.
Yeah, take THAT, Russia.
Jeffrey (Steven Weber) is your typical young gay man living in Manhattan during the AIDS crisis. Well, typical, provided that the typical gay man living in that situation had given up on sex entirely, out of fear of what could happen. In fact, Jeffrey’s decision even seems to make him pretty happy, which confuses his friends Sterling (Patrick Stewart) and Darius (Bryan Batt). Of course, this wouldn’t be a romantic comedy of any kind without a love interest, and that’s where Steve (Michael T. Weiss) steps in. The chemistry between Jeffrey and Steve is there right from the first moment, but there’s just one catch. Steve is HIV-positive.
The film plays out with Jeffrey both listening to and ignoring his friends, depending on their advice, all while pining after Steve. For his part, Steve is leaving himself out there for Jeffrey to eventually move to. Over the course of the film, it becomes apparent that Jeffrey isn’t swearing off of sex out of fear of contracting AIDS himself, but out of fear of loving someone who is going to die sooner, rather than later, because of the terrible disease. Eventually, as he watches how Sterling and Darius cope with the disease, he realizes that he still needs to open himself up to the possibility of love, and life, even with the risks.
The film is an adaptation by Paul Rudnick of his own off-Broadway play, and elements of that show through the film. The seemingly random clips interspersed in the greater story do call back somewhat to the theatrical origins of the story, as that convention, while present in film, seems to feel more at home on the stage. However, the film keeps the overall elements simple enough, with just enough pomp to let the story flesh out a movie experience, without detracting from the main message.
One thing that stands out to me about Jeffrey is how, at it’s core, it’s simply a romantic comedy. Yes, the majority of the characters are gay, but they didn’t have to be. It could just as easily have been straight couples dealing with these same complications. While the gay community was certainly hit hard by the AIDS epidemic, they weren’t the only ones, and the story wouldn’t have been impacted much by replacing gay characters with straight ones.
That said, part of the reason that the film lingers in my mind is actually BECAUSE of the usage of gay characters. The story is universal, and, in the mid-90’s homosexuality was still largely seen in the media as being very campy, very over-the-top, and always flamboyant. Look at The Birdcage for proof. Yes, Sterling is an interior designer, and delivers a terrific line about being in the “Pink Panthers”. Yes, Darius is part of the chorus of Cats. It’s really in the character of Jeffrey himself where the typical (for the time) Hollywood presentation of gays is turned on its ear. After all, Jeffrey is a pretty average guy, who just so happens to have sworn off sex. Oh, and he prefers to have sex with other guys.
And that, to me, is part of the magic of Jeffrey. It isn’t in the message of living for love, or choosing not to be destroyed by fear. It’s that, in the mid-90’s, someone in Hollywood was willing to take a risk and show that, by and large, gays really aren’t any different than straights. It’s a point that still gets argued (foolishly, in my opinion) to this day. Jeffrey gave a story that is accessible and understandable to anyone who’s ever been afraid to take a chance on love, regardless of sexual orientation. That alone makes it something that should be put on more people’s viewing lists.