The title character of Jeffrey, played by Steven Weber, is a young, gay actor/waiter in New York City. He loves sex, but nonetheless swears off it out of fear of AIDS. Shortly thereafter, he meets Steve (Michael T. Weiss), a beautiful young bartender he can't quite resist. Before their first date, Steve warns Jeffrey up front that he's HIV-positive. Jeffrey finds an excuse to call off the date.
What this synopsis doesn't tell you is that Jeffrey is a comedy, and not a black comedy, either. It's a cheery, freewheeling lampoon of sexual mores, like a Road comedy in which Bob and Bing woo each other instead of Dorothy Lamour. It just happens to be set against the backdrop of a devastating, decimating epidemic.
It was inevitable that, sooner or later, someone would make an AIDS comedy. What's delightful about Jeffrey is that the jaunty tone doesn't seem like a pose. The script, adapted by Paul Rudnick from his own successful off-Broadway play, has the loose, episodic structure of a series of revue sketches, hung on a thin plot line about Jeffrey avoiding the agonies of love even at the expense of its ecstasies. Some of the vignettes depict Jeffrey's bizarre encounters with other New Yorkers, and some dramatize Jeffrey's wacky imaginative flights. These include being a contestant on a game show about sex, hearing his sweet, square parents talk frankly and graphically about sex during a telephone conversation, and dancing in a "cater-waiter hoe-down" while working a fund-raising party for AIDS.
The dialogue, though by no means immortal, has a serviceably brittle snap. Director Christopher Ashley, who helmed the play off-Broadway, gives the film a fine, breezy pace and a playful, unpretentious spirit, even breaking the "fourth wall" at one inspired point.
It's the actors, however, who make the film. Amazingly, the leads don't camp it up, but stay relaxed. Steven Weber (from TV's Wings) makes Jeffrey a likable everyman, and Weiss is quietly attractive as the bartender. Even Patrick Stewart, in a role made for hamming, behaves himself. As Jeffrey's dryly witty, sophisticated interior-designer friend, Stewart is entertainingly grand, yet he doesn't lose the sense that he's a real person.
Bryan Batt is charmingly funny, with a touch of poignancy, as Stewart's empty-headed, HIV-positive boyfriend, a dancer in the chorus of Cats who wants his funeral in the Winter Garden Theatre. (A bad bit of voice-looping in the scene where he mentions this suggests that the producers of Jeffrey couldn't get the rights to the song "Midnight." There's something quite nasty about the copyright holders of Cats refusing to part with two crummy lines of that irksome tune.)
The supporting cast includes a number of relatively big names, and they do ham it up--amusingly, in most cases. In the small role of a "postmodern evangelist" consulted by Jeffrey, Sigourney Weaver does, perhaps, her best screen acting ever. In the film's best scene, Nathan Lane goes hilariously off the deep end as a randy gay priest who looks for God in the jackets of show-tune LPs. Robert Klein, Christine Baranski, Kathy Najimy and Olympia Dukakis also turn up in enjoyable bits.
Jeffrey is no big deal; indeed, its significance comes from its being no big deal in the face of a problem that is a big deal. It is strikingly like a wartime comedy--much-needed escapism, with a few grudging references to the enemy.
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