Love! Valour! Compassion! Joe Mantello (15)

In the argument about screen representations of homosexuality, one sort of pressure tends to be neglected. Protest groups manned the barricades to oppose the portrayal of lesbians as crazed killers in Basic Instinct but, at about the same time, the Steve Martin film LA Story was screened for test audiences, and adjusted as a result of the comments received. In the version shown then, the hero's sympathetic female neighbours were identified as gay women, and audiences disapproved. The nice lesbians were not liked, so their screen-time was cut and their sexuality obscured. Of course, no one objected to the cheap shots at the expense of the closet case played by Richard E Grant. So it is that the matter-of-fact gets cut and the caricatural survives into the final cut.

In this cultural context, it can seem heroic to make a film like Love! Valour! Compassion!, which has a total of eight characters, all of them gay. Heroic or highly practical - the film could lose 90 per cent of its footage and still give offence in the Bible Belt, so there's no prospect of tidying it up. Gregory (Stephen Bogardus) has a nice Victorian house in the country, where he lives with his lover Bobby (Justin Kirk), who is blind. They invite half-a-dozen friends for the three festival weekends that define summer in the United States: Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labour Day.

This is evidently a three-act structure, and it's no surprise that the script, by Terrence McNally, should be based on his off-Broadway play. The theatrical bones fairly often show through what cinematic flesh the first-time director Joe Mantello can contrive. Mantello has the problematic advantage of working with the stage cast, though the part of Buzz has been displaced by Jason Alexander from Seinfeld. Alexander claims to get offended by over-the-top portrayals of gay men by straight actors and didn't want to do the cliches, but apparently someone made him do them anyway. He flaps his wrist and shrieks with the best of them, as if perhaps required by the role of flamboyant Buzz, person with Aids and actor without work. In a droll montage of the guests packing, his is not the hold-all into which a saturnine composer drops his holiday handcuffs, nor the neat suitcase into which shirts are reverently laid (only to be ousted by the dissenting taste of a co-packer), but a back-pack into which are dropped, in equal plenty, bottles of pills and CDs of musicals.

A gay ensemble piece in which the characters alternately bitch, reminisce and wallow, forever either stalking out in huffs or apologising for their hatefulness, is bound to summon up memories of The Boys in the Band. McNally may actively be trying to update the format of Mart Crowley's play for a generation less addicted to self-hatred, or at least subject to different strains of it. When we first see the film's established couple, Arthur and Perry, close to their 14th anniversary ("We're role models - it's very stressful"), one of them is riling the other by yelling sexist obscenities at a woman driver. First he gets the right-on response ("We hurt ourselves when we use those words, we diminish ourselves") and then a conspiratorial, "You fairy". The young Puerto Rican dancer Ramon (Randy Brecker), the film's disruptive outsider, lectures the group at table: "We don't love one another because we don't love ourselves."

The climax of The Boys in the Band was the Truth Game, in which the characters had to phone a man they loved to tell him so; it exacted a fair toll of trauma. But that was gay life in the 1960s. In the 1990s, gay men are able to say very clearly whom they love, and how and why, as they do in the first act of Love! Valour! Compassion! Thirty years of gay liberation, not to mention a few million man-hours of therapy, have done that much for them.

Only one character is presented as "unable to love", as we used to say, and given a long monologue about a formative sexual experience. Unfortunately for British audiences, this is John, the self-hating composer (John Glover) - John from England. The mixture of amateurish sadism and an affected accent makes him into everything the film allows its viewers to despise, a cruel sissy. His confessional monologue ends with the words, "All he let out was one sorpht `aaah!'" but I suppose we'll just have to put up with it.

Glover also plays John's sick twin-brother James, who appears some way through the film and is John's polar opposite - sensitive, loving, kind - except for also being sissy to the nth degree. As James, Glover wears kimonos and scarves and Hinge-and-Bracket specs, but at least he knows enough about musical comedy to be able to talk to Buzz. It seems more than coincidental that the two characters with Aids are also the campy ones, even if Buzz's camp is presented as valiant rather than defeatist. Camp seems the problematic term here, rather than Aids, which is easily assimilated into the laughter-and-tears dynamic - camp, which is disapproved of but somehow indispensable, sprouting back however often it is rooted out, a group necessity that is penalised in individuals.

Presumably the big scene between the twins ("You've got the good soul, I've got the bad one") is new for the screen or done very differently on stage. Watching the film, it's impossible to ignore the technical trickery so as to concentrate on the emotional manipulation. At other moments, Mantello shows that he might have the makings of a real director. There's one very effective use of film language, a voice-over nibbled at both ends. We hear Gregory reading aloud from his diary, but the ideal vista he conjures up is broken, though he doesn't know it, by Ramon whispering "Meet me on the raft" to Gregory's lover. The scene ends with us being shown Gregory's diary, only it isn't Gregory reading it after all, it's John sneaking a peek. We realise this just as Gregory's voice pronounces the words, "Poor John, people don't like him."

Terrence McNally's earlier play The Ritz, filmed by Richard Lester in 1976, used formula (in that case, farce) rather subversively. A straight man hides out from gangsters in a gay baths, so that he learns at first hand what it's like being in a sexual minority. The Ritz didn't tell audiences that you had to like gay people, but that you did have to deal with them, and when the film shows on TV there are still a few viewers who may be taken aback by a simple but effective mechanism. Love! Valour! Compassion! is in a strange way less unsettling of the status quo. It shows that the ground plan of the sentimental Broadway play can accommodate more or less any colour of decor and disposition of furnituren

On general release from tomorrow

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