‘The Boys in the Band’ Film Review: Ryan Murphy Turns a Classic Queer Drama Into Waxwork Karaoke

William Friedkin’s 1970 adaptation of Mart Crowley’s play wasn’t perfect, but it had a pulse missing from this slavish re-creation

Last Updated: September 30, 2020 @ 10:52 AM

Producer Ryan Murphy and director Joe Mantello have come not to bury the past but to slavishly recreate it, sort of, with “The Boys in the Band,” a feature film starring the cast that the two assembled for the 2018 revival of Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking play about a group of urban gay frenemies.

“Groundbreaking” is one of the last adjectives one could apply to this ossified remake, which scavenges the surface of William Friedkin’s 1970 film version with all the depth of a magazine layout or a theme party. Whether or not you think Crowley’s very of-its-moment piece still has something to say to audiences of the 21st century, it’s a play that deserves better than this waxwork karaoke.

Michael (Jim Parsons), who grapples with his gay identity via retail therapy and Catholic guilt, throws a birthday party for the acerbic Harold (Zachary Quinto). The guests include the unapologetically flamboyant Emory (Robin de Jesus); librarian Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington, “Ratched”); conservative Hank (Tuc Watkins), who’s leaving his wife and family for roving-eyed Larry (Andrew Rannells); neurotic stud Donald (Matt Bomer); and hustler Cowboy (Charlie Carver), whom Emory has purchased for the evening as Harold’s gift. There’s also a surprise appearance by Michael’s old college chum Alan (Brian Hutchison, “The Sinner”).

“The Boys in the Band,” paradigm-shifter though it was in its frank portrayal of a certain segment of gay life, is rather traditional in structure; it’s one of those Broadway plays where various character types gather together in a room and very quickly begin hurling long-buried truths and accusations at each other. One might hope that certain aspects of what it has to say about how gay men function in American society and how they feel about themselves and each other are part of the past. (“Show me a happy homosexual,” Michael notes in an oft-quoted line, “and I’ll show you a gay corpse.”) But it’s a work that can and does have relevance as a piece of drama (that’s often very funny) and delight as a showcase for actors.

Both the relevance and the delight turn up every so often in this new version, but not nearly enough. Mantello doesn’t quite go full “Gus Van Sant remaking ‘Psycho'” in his dedication to Friedkin’s work, but the influence of the original is there, from the shots of Donald driving into the city from the Hamptons to the recreation of Phil Smith’s set decoration. As cover versions go, however, it’s fairly soulless.

Friedkin, as he often did in his theatrical adaptations, played up the claustrophobia and the closeness. You could feel the humidity building up to the thunderstorm that drives everyone inside for the final act, and you could see the sweat on the faces of this boozy, barb-tongued crew. There’s none of that here; heck, there’s not even a single mark on Quinto’s flawless complexion, which renders his character’s self-description as a “pock-marked Jew fairy” utterly meaningless.

One of the few ways that Mantello and screenwriter Ned Martel, who shares writing credit with Crowley, break away from the previous movie is with a handful of flashbacks and an epilogue, which further dissipate the tension and offer little of dramatic value, although they do shoehorn some nudity into the otherwise fully-dressed proceedings.

And while de Jesus offers some of the best acting work in the film, it’s a bit of a cop-out changing Emory from a white character to a Latinx one, as it diminishes the character’s stream of jokey racist put-downs to Bernard, and Bernard’s eventual explanation as to why he allows it. If filmmakers are going to re-create 1968, it’s cheating to retroactively let white characters’ racist behavior off the hook.

What works best here is Crowley’s still-pungent dialogue, when delivered by actors who get the balance of wit, self-loathing, and rage. In addition to de Jesus, Washington, Watkins, and Rannells tackle the words with the deepest understanding and emotional flair, while Carver nails the jokes, of which his character is generally the butt.

Disappointingly, it’s the bigger names in the bigger roles that drop the ball; Parsons whines so gratingly that we can’t imagine how Michael has enough friends to fill a party, and Quinto takes Harold’s most acridly funny lines and turns them into Dennis Haysbert talking about car insurance.

This is another Ryan Murphy production, on the heels of “Hollywood,” that turns the trauma of the past into a fashion show. (One imagines his connection to the material being less about the evolution of gay men and their role in society and more “Wow, ascots!”) Crowley, the friends and lovers who inspired him to create this cast of characters, and all the queer pioneers who paved the way for the current LGBTQ+ community, deserve a remake more pungent and more powerful than this mostly airless spectacle.