Review: 'The Boys In The Band' Plays the Same Outdated Tune

by Kevin Taft

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday September 30, 2020

'The Boys in the Band'
'The Boys in the Band'  

It's hard to criticize a film like "The Boys in the Band," which is based on the 2018 Broadway revival of the play by Matt Crowley, which itself was a play in 1968 and a resulting movie in 1970. Phew! The tale of six gay friends throwing a birthday party for one of their own finally showed homosexuals as real people; that was groundbreaking in its day. At a time when it was more than necessary to be closeted, these men reveled in their queerdom and wrestled with what it meant to be themselves in the world. And that piece of history is incredibly important.

It's not surprising that the play was revived (first in London in 2016) and then on Broadway during the summer of 2018 with an all-star, all-gay cast. That cast revives their roles in this Netflix film adaptation directed by Joe Mantello (who also directed the play) and produced by Ryan "let me get my hands on anything gay" Murphy.

How audiences of today will react will be interesting. It's always a joy and a relief to see yourself portrayed in mainstream pop culture and, with openly gay popular actors to boot, it's a gift. But the play, while revolutionary in its time, feels "mostly" dated now. Sure, gay people have some of the same problems as the characters here (one half of a couple wants monogamy, the other unapologetically does not), a few are self-loathing, one is a triumphant effeminate, while another has body-image issues. Relatable, right? But the time was very different, and things have changed so much it's almost frustrating to watch the characters fumble. It's understandable. It was the late '60s. But there's something about the material that is entirely morose when we've come so far.

But just as Hollywood has portrayed gay people as caricatures or stereotypes for years, so does "The Boys in the Band." For some, this will be an enjoyable, cynical, barb-filled lark. For others, you'll wonder why any of these people can stand each other for more than five minutes. (You know how in a lot of horror movies "five friends go on a trip then terror ensues" and you are baffled that any of those five people would ever be friends, let alone go on a trip together? That's what it feels like here.)

There's something to be said for friends who can be downright cruel to each other and remain adoring friends despite it; but as gay people have evolved to be a bit more out and proud, some of this behavior wouldn't be tolerated today. The boys in this band would be having a "Real Housewives" moment if this were rebooted as a contemporary story.

The basic premise of the play is that one of these New Yorker friends, Harold (Zachary Quinto), is having a birthday and is going to the apartment of his bitchy friend Michael (Jim Parsons) to celebrate with his friends. Those include Emory (Robin de Jesus), the aforementioned effeminate interior designer; Donald (Matt Bomer), the beautiful boy eschewing the New York gay lifestyle and going to therapy; photographer and non-monogamist Larry (Andrew Rannells); his lover Hank (Tuc Watkins, Rannells' partner in real life); and Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington), the one Black guy in the group, who allows his friends to be just a little bit racist in front of him.

Meanwhile, Michael gets a visit from his straight college best friend Alan (Brian Hutchison) who wants to confess something to him, but finds himself interrupting a party that he was never meant to be a part of.

At first, the group arrives one by one, trading snappy one-liners and establishing their characters. There's a lot of slams and put-downs, which is common with a certain LGBTQ crowd, and that's fine. The problem is that the negativity and insults progress to the point where you actually wonder why they tolerate the abuse. When a hustler (Charlie Carver) shows up as a gift for Harold, the boy isn't the brightest, and almost everyone in the group continually insults the kid's intelligence. In 1968, when the film takes place, self-esteem for all of these characters is low, so it's not a surprise that the boy takes it, but at the same time, all of the characters accept the maltreatment they receive. We can understand the time period, but it can get frustrating to watch because, aside from maybe three characters, the rest all awful, terrible, nasty people.

Eventually, it begins to rain, so the group escapes the NYC balcony and huddle inside, where Michael insists they all play a game — especially Alan who, at this point, has revealed his homophobia multiple times. The game? Call someone you have always loved and admit that love to them. You get points for how far you get. It's a ridiculous, sort of random game that I can't imagine anyone would willingly participate in. But they do, to mostly disastrous results.

There are some good moments here, especially between Hank and Larry, but you have to sift through the negativity to get there. It's a tough sell in this day and age. Some people will go with it, which I did, but I wasn't buying it as something that would actually occur.

The issue with "The Boys in the Band" is truly the time period. You have to immerse yourself in that time and understand how self-loathing homosexuals were then because of the stigma that surrounded being gay. The conversations and characters all inform that. But it doesn't necessarily speak to the LGBTQ community today, so it is certainly a time capsule movie that you must put into perspective or find that it grates on the nerves.

This reviewer was in the middle. I was with the ride for a bit, but the nastiness of almost every character (save Donald and Hank) was off-putting. Who would want to spend their time with these guys? I suppose maybe the "Real Housewives" fans might enjoy the constant cutting down of each other, but it just made me sad.

The acting and directing is very good here, although the one weak link for me was Parsons, who seems to have played the same bitchy, queeny, gay character since coming out. His overarching delivery becomes repetitive, and he proves to be an earnestly miserable character. The other actors fare better, although poor Matt Bomer isn't given much to do and Charlie Carver just sits around acting dim. Quinto also plays it a bit over the top, which would have been fine if Parsons wasn't already chewing the scenery.

It would be interesting if the play were updated to modern times. Take the same premise and place current issues within it, and let the characters go. Some of the issues would still be the same, but as we have come to accept ourselves more, we have also learned to be more compassionate and empathic with each other. While there are moments of that here — friends who still accept each other despite how awful they are to each other — it ends on a sad note. When uninformed straight people complain that all gays are depressed and unhappy, this film isn't going to help change their minds. I enjoyed the boys in this band in fits and starts, but ultimately I was glad when their number finished.

Kevin Taft is a screenwriter/critic living in Los Angeles with an unnatural attachment to 'Star Wars' and the desire to be adopted by Steven Spielberg.