Steven Weber and Michael T. Weiss, in 'Jeffrey'

Dir. Christopher Ashley
(1995, R, 93 min)
★ ★ ½

Jeffrey is sort of a sitcom Angels in America, set about a decade after Tony Kushner’s masterpiece about gay life at the dawn of the AIDS crisis, a mid-point between ‘80s terror and ‘00s complacency. Paul Rudnick wrote the screenplay based on his 1992 play, and though made around the same time as Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work it feels a lot more dated, which is less the result of its subject than of its treatment. Directed too broadly by Christopher Ashley, a stage vet who treats the screen too much like the stage, it’s preachy and self-conscious, at times more a lesson than a story, but it’s not a bad film, per se. It’s blessed with excellent performances — though at times those performances seem to be coming from different films altogether — and sporadic insight into a period of sexual uncertainty and dread, and in its pioneering way it’s even an important film. I have a stubborn affection for it despite its flaws.

Steven Weber leads a cast of mostly TV vets (or soon-to-be TV vets) as the title character, a promiscuous New York City gay man who finds that the threat of AIDS has taken the air out of his sex life. He decides to become celibate, but his resolve is tested when he meets Steve (Michael T. Weiss) at a gym. Steve, apart from being attractive, available, and endearing, is HIV-positive, which sends Jeffrey on a tailspin of anxiety. He seeks advice from sources as varied as Sigourney Weaver, in a very funny cameo as a motivational speaker, and Nathan Lane, splendid as a randy priest with dubious metaphors for God (something about My Fair Lady and balloons). Patrick Stewart is good as Jeffrey’s best friend Sterling, a flamboyant interior decorator dating a younger man (Bryan Batt, who would go on to play the closeted Salvatore on Mad Men), but the best scenes are the simplest ones between Jeffrey and Steve, which are about not affirmations or messages but two characters trying to bridge the gap between affection and fear. Their story works better as a small-scale relationship comedy without the social-issues theme to weigh it down — though I wouldn’t turn down a spinoff film about the priest. A musical perhaps. Wouldn’t it be loverly?