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Love! Valour! Compassion!

(1997) *** R
108 min. Fine Line. Director: Joe Mantello. Cast: Jason Alexander, Randy Becker, Stephen Bogardus, John Glover, John Benjamin Hickey.

Based on the hit Broadway play by Terrence McNally, Love! Valour! Compassion! is a graceful, sharp-witted, and poignant gay film. It is also, like Jeffrey before it, a fairly conventional genre tale with a TV sitcom star front and center: in this case, a sort of gay Big Chill.

The hope on the part of the producers that you'll laugh, you'll cry, and kiss your seven bucks goodbye was enough, by a narrow margin, to bankroll this low-budget but handsome and well-acted film.

The setup is simple. Over the course of three summer holiday weekends, we get to know eight gay men as they bond and bicker, strengthen and weaken. Each man's vulnerabilities are laid bare; in fact, each man is laid bare over the course of the film. Director Joe Mantello has reassembled the original Broadway cast, with one notable exception: Nathan Lane. Lane's reasons for passing are murky: it's believed he may have backed off to avoid another fey role on the heels (no pun intended) of The Birdcage, prompting a feud with McNally over Lane's ambition to join the Hollywood mainstream. This potentially disastrous crisis has been averted by the casting of Jason Alexander as Buzz, the AIDS-stricken musical-theater buff who puts a brave face on his insecurities.

Alexander is surprisingly good here, though his schtick occasionally strikes a false note. His dramatic scenes, however, are uniformly note-perfect, particularly his tender love scenes with John Glover. Glover reprises his Tony-winning dual role as John and James Jekyll (subtle, eh?), with turns equally lovable and pitiable as the polar opposite twin brothers. Stephen Spinella is wonderful as the helplessly snide half of a "role model" couple, together for over a decade.

Stephen Bogardus (in his Tony-nominated role), John Benjamin Hickey, Justin Kirk, and Randy Becker round out the cast, each displaying the depth of years spent with these characters. It is the joy of watching these actors at work which provides the most fuel for the film.

Like most popular Hollywood comedy-dramas, predictably manipulative elements and obvious situations abound, but the awareness of the narrative machinery does little to suppress the good humor and genuine emotion at the core of the film.

Love! Valour! Compassion! may not be a landmark film, but for its moment, it represents the best of mainstream films about the gay experience.

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