Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Magic Mike and Those Other Boys in the Band

If you’re looking for two films with contrasting outlooks on male sexuality, try watching Magic Mike back to back with the new Netflix version of Mart Crowley’s classic 1968 stage play, The Boys in the Band. Magic Mike, set in modern-day Tampa, features a lurid strip club in which hard-bodied young males rhythmically shed their clothes, to the delight of scores of screaming young women. It’s like a particularly lurid reunion of the Village People: you’ve never seen so many fantasy cops, construction workers, GI’s, and trenchcoat-clad businessmen stripping down to their skivvies (and beyond) to the thumping beat of rock music. Matthew McConaughey presides over this stud farm, and seems to be enjoying every moment he gets to strut his stuff as the motor-mouth club impresario. But at the center of the flimsy story stands Channing Tatum, who apparently once lived this life for real, and has the dance moves (as well as the body) to prove it. He’d really rather be making custom furniture (huh?), but he willingly takes on the obligation of initiating a teen-aged newcomer into this sketchy but somehow glamorous world.

 Does he succeed? Do we really care? This film may be easy on the eyes, but it’s hard to feel much connection with its characters and their sometimes pathetic hustles in the name of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.

 One of the guys in Magic Mike’s chorus line of strippers is hunky Matt Bomer, perhaps best known for looking good in a suit in TV’s White Collar series. I was deeply amused to see Bomer turning up as Donald in The Boys in the Band, a screen adaptation of the acclaimed 2018 Broadway revival starring Jim Parsons (The Big Bang’s nerdy Sheldon, of course) in the central role of Michael. The Boys in the Band owes something to Broadway hits like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in which assorted characters gather for a social event that turns out to be a kind of brutal exorcism. But what made this play stand out in 1968 was the fact that all (or mostly all) of its characters are gay men, presented frankly and affectionately, in an era well before AIDS was to decimate their ranks. One of the partygoers, the flamboyant Emory (Robin de Jesús) seems to conform to a common stereotype (the gay “queen”), but his portrayal – like all the others – is more complex than it first appears. There’s pain here, and humor, and anger, and real grappling to accept the hand that each man has been dealt.

 The stakes are ramped up as Michael semi-maliciously introduces a “Get the Guests” party game designed to bring out each player’s deepest hopes and fears. The fact that all the men in this production (also including Zachary Quinto of the Star Trek prequel, Andrew Rannells of The Book of Mormon, and others) are “out” in their own lives doubtless inspires their understanding of the roles they play.

 When a Broadway hit is transferred to the screen, it often comes off as stiff and stagey. Director Joe Mantello, one of Broadway’s leading lights since he staged Angels in America in 1993, has only limited film experience. Still, he’s done a masterful job of opening up a play that originally featured a simple living-room set. At the onset, we see the characters heading to Michael’s New York digs from their various homes; later we watch them scattering. Michael’s cushy terrace apartment also allows for some outdoor scenes, and a rain shower punctuates some of the drama. It’s talky, yes, but this talk is well worth hearing.


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