MGM Video,

Christopher Ashley

Paul Rudnick,
from his play

Steven Weber,
Patrick Stewart,
Michael T. Weiss,
Bryan Batt,
Robert Klein,
Christine Baranski,
Sigourney Weaver,
Nathan Lane,
Olympia Dukakis,
Kevin Nealon,
Camryn Manheim

Rated R, 92 minutes

Safest Sex
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, April, 2009



In 1993, playwright Paul Rudnick's Off-Broadway hit, Jeffrey, took a decidedly different approach towards depicting gay men and AIDS; it was written as a comedy.

While this might sound tasteless, Jeffrey was a much needed antidote at the time to the climate of death that had permeated gay culture for most of the previous decade. The play resonated with audiences and, two years later, it was adapted for the screen by Rudnick himself. The film, helmed by the play's original director, Christopher Ashley, featured an A-list cast augmented by a treasure trove of celebrity cameos.

Jeffrey is the hilarious story of a 30-something actor/waiter who has become so disenchanted with safe sex and the terror of AIDS that he has decided to give up all forms of carnal knowledge forever. "Sex is too sacred to be treated this way," Jeffrey (Steven Weber) declares directly to the audience. "Sex wasn't meant to safe, or negotiated, or fatal... So. Enough... no more sex." Celibacy becomes Jeffrey's new mantra and he heads to the gym to find a new outlet for his energies...

...and immediately meets Steve (Michael T. Weiss). Steve is everything that Jeffrey has always wanted in a man but, because he has vowed to give up sex, he panics and makes a quick exit stage left. But they meet cute again. Steve is persistent and eventually wins Jeffrey over - until he discloses that he is HIV positive. Jeffrey's worst fear is realized and he retreats into his cocoon again.
The very scenario that he fears is embodied by his two best friends. Patrick Stewart (I, Claudius, Star Trek: The Next Generation) plays Sterling, an ascorbic interior decorator who is always ready with an Oscar Wildean bon mot for every occasion. Sterling is a catty queen but he also has a big heart. He urges Jeffrey to find a boyfriend. His younger lover is Darius (Bryan Blatt), a dancer who is appearing in Cats. Darius is also HIV positive. Sterling maintains a healthy attitude about the situation and tells Jeffrey that they still have sex - "Safe sex. The best." But he is also being a bit delusional ("You are not going to get sick," he tells Darius. "I thought I made that clear.") and his words do nothing to assay Jeffrey's ultimately selfish terror of living with such a man and eventually having to watch him die.
As Jeffrey ponders the meaning of life, the universe and everything, playwright Rudnick skewers every gay stereotype under the sun and pokes fun at all the staples that had become cliches in gay drama. Much of the humor is brilliant. The copious comic settings and situations include a hoedown for AIDS, bogus self help groups, queer vigilantes, an amorous priest and a Gay Pride Parade. No sacred cow escapes Rudnick's finely tuned barbs and Jeffrey is often very, very funny. At a memorial service, Jeffrey is shocked to realize that he's crusing one of the mourners. Sterling moans "Oh please - everybody is" while Darius announces that he wants Liza at his memorial and the cast of Cats to sing "Darius, we all thought you were fabulous" to the tune of "Memories."
However, what works on stage doesn't always work on screen. The fourth wall is repeatedly broken down, a common device on stage, whenever Jeffrey addresses the audience. This is okay in a film when there's only one narrator but it's a mistake when others deliver monologues as well. The frequent appearances of Mother Theresa are also more anachronistic, and just a little weirder, on film. In the most glaring example of what should never be done on screen, Jeffrey is chased down the streets of New York by his friends and a horde of strangers who badger him and then break into applause when he finally agrees to a date with Steve. You don't do that in cinema, you do it in sitcoms.
Film, by its very nature, usually demands a semblance of realism and many of Rudnick's plays are, at times, little more than a series of sketches tied together by an underlying theme. This was also true of parts of The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, Valhalla and The New Century and this shortcoming is quite evident in the film version of Jeffrey. While most of it is unquestionably funny, there isn't always a cohesive narrative. Some film versions of plays would benefit from someone other than the original stage director standing behind the camera. Jeffrey isn't alone, look at the recent film version of The Producers.
Still, the film is not without its many charms and there are laughs aplenty. You watch Rudnick for the jokes and he is one of the masters. When Steve offers to spot for Jeffrey, on their first meeting at the gym, the line between bench pressing and sex become hilariously blurred. Rudnick pokes fun at straight audience reactions when Steve gives Jeffrey a big kiss and the action cuts to a movie theater where two teen-aged boys begin to scream in disgust while their girlfriends sigh with romantic approval. In one of the best scenes, Jeffrey calls his parents and ponders what it would be like if you could really talk to them about your problems. He tells them that he has given up sex and, shocked, they offer advice such as "What about a jerk-off club," "Have you explored masturbation" and "We like that new Jeff Stryker film, Powertool II."
Counsel also comes from the strangest places. Sigourney Weaver plays a ditsy New Age Evangelist who preaches unconditional love so that you can find the strength to say "FUCK YOU! Get out of my house until you stop drinking!" Nathan Lane appears as a horny and show-tune loving priest who tells Jeffrey that "there is only one real blasphemy - the refusal of joy... When did despair become enjoyable? Grief, yes; tears, of course. But terminal gloom? Who does that help? Even Brecht wrote musicals."
The scene with the priest, besides being funny, is very important. Here is a good example of why Rudnick has always been so popular. Look at how well he is able to incorporate a lifetime of queer experience and sensibility into his writing and convey a mood that is both touching and humorous:

"You got your idea of God from where most gay kids get it - the album cover of My Fair Lady. Original cast. It's got this Hirschfeld caricature of George Bernard Shaw up in the clouds, manipulating Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews on strings, like marionettes. It was your parents' album, you were little, you thought it was a picture of God... God is on that record. Lerner and Lowe! 'Why Can't The English.' 'Wouldn't It Be Loverly.' I'm telling you, the only times I really feel the presence of God are when I'm having sex, and during a great Broadway musical." [Jeffrey calls Father Dan nuts.] "Excuse me? All you people, you're worshipping resurrections, virgin births, Ben Hur, and I'm nuts?"

The cast of Jeffrey is terrific. Steven Weber threw himself into the lead role and it is obvious that he was having a lot of fun with it. Michael T. Weiss is suitably butch and hot as Steve but he sometimes needs to loosen up a bit. Patrick Stewart, on the other hand, steals every scene in which he appears as Sterling and he gets most of the best lines. Stewart camps it up just enough to be delightful without going over the top. His high-spirited, and sometimes deadpan, delivery saves even the silliest scenes. At the Pride Parade, he is asked what group he is marching with and replies, "Gay Men Who Need A Cigarette." During a game show fantasy ("It's Just Sex" with host Skip Winkly) his reply to a question about what seemingly harmless events can now be fatal during sex is "fluorescent lighting." This might have been more of an issue back in 1995, but Stewart is such a versatile actor that I didn't think of Star Trek: TNG's Captain Jean Luc Picard once when I first watched the movie.
Jeffrey is a very mixed film but it is nonetheless essential viewing. Most of the flaws I mentioned stand out more on repeated viewings and most should enjoy Jeffrey for the jokes alone if nothing else. It feels like one of those uniquely New York Woody Allen films and this is a good thing. It also feels like a sitcom sometimes too and the juggler doesn't always keep all the balls in the air. But, as I said, the film has its charms. The bench pressing scene is hotter than some porn; the Hoedown for AIDS explodes into Seven Brides For Seven Brothers mixed with Busby Berkeley and Tom Of Finland; the opening montage of Jeffrey's last sexual trysts ("It broke," "Let's just cuddle" and "Here's the results from my blood test a month ago") was daring for its time. Although I have to admit that it was funnier on stage when each lover was under the covers, in a large bed, and popped up for their scene like clowns coming out of a little car.

Still, all quibbles aside, Jeffrey was important in its day and the film still amuses. The famous finale in which Jeffrey and Steve bounce the balloon around, without letting it hit the ground, is romantic as hell. I wish that it had just faded to black with their kiss instead of showing the balloon flying over Central Park as a segue into the credits, but it's time to stop ragging on its flaws. The good points outweigh the bad by far. Jeffrey is a very funny, and a very moving, film.


More on Paul Rudnick:
In & Out
The Stepford Wives

Steven Weber also appears in:
Common Ground
Choose Connor

Nathan Lane also appears in:
The Birdcage

Christine Baranski also appears in:
The Birdcage