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‘Jeffrey’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 18, 1995

In Paul Rudnick's "Jeffrey," the quip is everything. His characters live by it, waxing ironic on every subject and occasion; they also die by it, hiding the pain of their alienation, suffering and loss behind wisecracks.

A cliche? Perhaps, but then Rudnick isn't into subtlety. Based on the play that was widely touted as the first AIDS-era comedy, "Jeffrey" represents a landmark of sorts, yet it is anything but a pinnacle. An episodic glimpse into the life of a Manhattan actor-caterer-waiter (Steven Weber), the movie presents Rudnick's stage original in a style that is glib and eager to please; it signals early on—from the opening scene, in fact, when a condom tears during sex—that sensitive matters are going to be dealt with irreverently. Yet while this may sound intriguing, the picture merely jumps around clumsily from incident to incident.

The film's subject is sex. Jeffrey wants to know what happened to it. Sex used to be so much fun; these days, with AIDS lurking behind every come-hither glance, you'd be safer playing Russian roulette. Determined to end his anxiety, Jeffrey decides just to give up sex altogether. Who needs it?

On this and other matters, though, Rudnick seems more interested in scoring laughs than in making precise social distinctions. Still, he might have had the taste to spare us the facile scenes in which Jeffrey struggles to deal with the death of a friend.

Weber (of NBC's "Wings") gave an unexpectedly complex performance as a serial killer in the television film "The Company of Darkness," but he's never in sync with his character here, nor with the fourth-wall-shattering theatricality of director Christopher Ashley's approach. But even Sigourney Weaver—who makes a cameo as a self-help guru in one of the film's least successful flights of fancy—looks slightly foolish (and certainly confused) attempting to find comfortable footing within the film's free associations.

Still, "Jeffrey" is funny. Rudnick ("Addams Family Values") may have limited gifts, but he does have a talent for wicked one-liners. His universe is all brittle attitude and style; unfortunately, though, Rudnick is no Noel Coward, and what passes for style here is often a crude example of its opposite. In its details, "Jeffrey" may be about the emotional lives of gays, but its heart is pure Broadway schlock. Rudnick's advice to Jeffrey and to the gay community is "Be a trouper. Lighten up." He stops short of bellowing, "The show must go on!" —but not by much.

Jeffrey is rated R.

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