Judge George Hatch would rather have a root canal without novacaine than watch this Terrence McNally adaptation again.
"A story about the times we live in…and the friends that help us get through them."—from the original theatrical trailer
With "friends" like these…?
Love! Valour! Compassion! is Terrence McNally's adaptation of his own Tony Award-winning Broadway play, brought to the screen with most of the original cast reprising their roles along with director Joe Mantello. Reuniting for three holiday weekends over the course of one summer, eight gay men—two couples, two brothers, and two disparate singles—try to sort out their fragmented relationships and deteriorating lives during the peak years of the AIDS crisis. As a depressing character-driven melodrama with only a handful of humorous but stereotypical one-liners, there's nothing in any way upbeat about this morbid invitation to Gay Hell.
With intermissions, the stage play ran about three and a half hours; but while the film has been mercifully trimmed to less than two, there's little relief from the despondent mood and tormented perspective of this doom-and-gloom fusion of Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band and Edgar Allan Poe's The Masque of the Red Death.
Facts of the Case
Stuttering Gregory Mitchell and his lover, blind Bobby Brahms, invite six of their friends to "celebrate" three long weekends at their mansion in upstate New York. Perry Sellars and Arthur Pape are an upscale professional couple approaching their 14th anniversary and have apparently patterned their bite-and-kiss relationship on that of George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The fey and faggoty Buzz Hauser, "a love child of Judy Garland and Liberace," relies on a set of headphones and a six-pack of Broadway musical CDs to suppress all thoughts of his HIV-Positive status while annoying those around him by singing out loud to tunes they can't hear. The other loner is Ramon Fornos, an aspiring young dancer who thinks he's Adonis and can't keep his clothes on for more than five minutes hoping anyone eyeballing his goods will either nuzzle him up the show biz ladder or sugar-daddy him into an easy life. Ramon was invited because he's been the boy-toy of John for a whole three weeks—quite impressive actually considering John's cynical and abusive disposition of verbally assaulting everyone within earshot. By the way, John's last name is Jeckyll—and, yes, he has a twin brother, James, the nice one, who is in the degenerative stages of AIDS and has flown in from London to take part in a new drug-trial protocol.
Like the three-act play, this film version is divided into the holiday segments of Memorial Day, The 4th of July, and Labor Day with each, in one way or another, connecting to the three words of the title. The only real "Love!" expressed in the first part is shared by Gregory and Bobby, but before the opening credits close, a quick flash forward to a midnight tryst with another guest tips us off they're headed for trouble. Perry and Arthur arrive bickering, Buzz sashays in with a suitcase full of CDs and HIV medication; and before he's even out of the car, John starts subverting the weekend by stuttering instructions to Ramon advising him not to mention Gregory's stutter. Ramon, of course, immediately strips himself naked. James the Fair, brother of John the Foul (as they are referred to by the others) arrives for the 4th of July sporting a sun bonnet the size of a sombrero and so much foppery that Buzz suddenly looks like Bruce Willis. The "Valour!" of this second weekend obviously refers to the courage and stamina required by these men to put up with each other for another grueling three days. "Compassion!" is the pity I feel and the condolences I extend to anyone choosing to sit through this long, harsh summer of misanthropy, self-loathing, and relentlessly morose sentimentality.
With no plot points to follow, not much has been lost in this truncated screen version, save for a lot of grief-stricken dialogue and most of Ramon's skin show. Still, Love! Valour! Compassion! not only dwells, but thrives upon negativity to its last minutes when, in voice-over, the characters describe their demise from "I have 27 years, eight months, three hours, 31 minutes, and 11 seconds left." to "No one mourned me. Not a tear was shed."
How the original stage actors performed these roles eight times a week without a resident psychiatrist in the wings is beyond comprehension, but it made for a smooth and fine-tuned transition to the screen. John Glover (Smallville) steals the film in the dual role of John and James Jeckyll. He won a Tony Award for his cleverly staged Broadway performance(s), and while that effect is lost on film, he is here better able to inhabit the personalities of these two polar opposites. Stephen Spinella (Ravenous) as Perry and John Benjamin Hickey (Changing Lanes) as Arthur share perfectly-timed verbal sparring; Stephen Bogardus (States of Control) as Gregory and Justin Kirk (Angels in America) show genuine affection for each other, with Kirk especially effective as the blind Bobby, though in one overwrought crying scene he still appears to be playing to the balcony instead of the camera. Randy Becker certainly has the looks and body for the role of Ramon but he has since appeared in only three films with American Adobo (2001) being the only one to make it—or go straight to DVD.
Jason Alexander (Shallow Hal) will forever be remembered as George on NBC's Seinfeld but he's also a Broadway song-and-dance man, coyly referring to himself as "the poor man's Nathan Lane" on TV talk shows. "If you can't get Lane, get that other short and stocky guy." Not wanting to be typecast, Lane turned down this adaptation of Love! Valour! Compassion and Alexander bravely took on the role of Buzz. I thought he looked a little uncomfortable stepping into Lane's "come-do-me" pumps and donning his "bare-my-ass" apron. He's too masculine to successfully pull off the flighty limp-wrist routines that occasionally bordered on the insulting gestures a straight guy might make in front of his beer buddies for a cheap laugh. But his scenes with John Glover as James the Fair are the best in the film, never once giving way to the bathos in which the rest of this movie drowns. Keep in mind these are the only two characters experiencing true pain; being both effeminate and victims of AIDS, Buzz and James are the real outsiders. Their developing relationship could have been trite and downright pathetic, but Alexander and Glover make it work, perhaps too well. While the other guests consistently moan, bitch, and calculate sexual and intellectual verbal zingers to fire at each other, Buzz and James find a connection in their hearts that generates a new-found intimacy almost too painful to watch…because we know it's not going to last.
The 1.85:1 widescreen transfer is quite spectacular, sharp and saturated with the rich colors of summer in the country. The soundtrack is excellent in both 5.1 Surround and 2.0 Stereo Surround. The only extras are the original theatrical trailer and two for Torch Song Trilogy and The Incredibly True Adventures of 2 Girls in Love. There's also DVD-ROM access to New Line's promotional website. Thankfully, no commentary.
Having lost some friends to AIDS and generally being emotionally vulnerable to certain films—ranging from Speilberg's A.I. (in which a mother abandons her son in the middle of a futuristic nowhere) to My Dog Skip (where a 1950s teen going off to college doesn't have time to pet the aging pooch that helped him grow up)—this judge is going to extra lengths in order to fairly rate one of the most manipulatively depressing films he's ever seen. The heartfelt performances of Glover and Alexander, as well the quality of the image and sound on this DVD, helped boost the final score well above a passing grade.
Should you decide to watch Love! Valour! Compassion! be sure to find the number of your local Suicide Hotline, program it into the one-touch dialing option on your telephone and keep it nearby at all times.
Case dismissed…but someone please pass the Prozac!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Original Theatrical Trailer
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