What Do The Critics Think of Netflix's 'The Boys in the Band?'

Wednesday September 30, 2020

Jim Parsons and Matt Bomer in Netflix's "The Boys in the Band"
Jim Parsons and Matt Bomer in Netflix's "The Boys in the Band"  (Source:Associated Press)

When the first film version of "The Boys in the Band" was released in 1970, Pauline Kael described the film this way: "A gathering of homosexuals at a birthday party; it's like the gathering of bitchy ladies in THE WOMEN, but with a 40s-movie bomber-crew cast: a Catholic, a Jew, a Negro, a hustler, one who is butch, and one who is nellie, and so on. They crack jokes while their hearts are breaking. The message appears to be that the spirit of MGM in the 40s still lives in the hearts and jokes of homosexuals."

Vincent Canby (in the New York Times) also compared the film version to "The Women," saying that playwright Mart Crowley incorporated "a certain kind of fake-elegant, American homosexual" into a script "patterned after fashions set 30 or 40 years ago on the Broadway stage. Thus one can understand why William Friedkin, the director, has transferred the play's consciously archaic theatricality so faithfully to the screen—with the original Off Broadway cast, and almost every line of bitchy, fake-elegant dialogue, intact."

That process appears to be pretty much the same with the new film version of the play that premieres this week on Netflix. It features the cast of the recent Tony-winning revival (Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer, Andrew Rannells, Charlie Carver, Robin de Jesús, Brian Hutchison, Michael Benjamin Washington, and Tuc Watkins). It is also directed by Joe Mantello, who staged that production that sold-out its limited run two years ago.

But how has the new version been received by the critics? On Rotten Tomatoes, it has an 85% approval from 40 critics, with a slightly higher percentage in the Top Critics category (88% from 17 critics). Audience approval is 100%, which is likely based on high viewer anticipation.

CNN's Brian Lowley praised the acting, but didn't feel the play really holds up 50 years later. "Fifty years later the play's text does feel less daring — the fact the actors are all out was hailed when the play made its debut as a sign of how far things have come — and after all the verbal fireworks, the payoff doesn't quite equal the build-up."

In the New York Times, Glenn Keany writes "The ensemble is superb, and each member has at least one standout moment, but the movie rides on the shoulders of Parsons, as Michael, the host of the party. Behind his quicksilver wit is a near-desperate desire to people-please. But once confronted with the cowardice and dissembling of his straight college friend, Alan (Brian Hutchison), who seeks out Michael in distress and then baits and assaults one of the guests, Michael's too-long-sublimated rage emerges."

In praising the film in the Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney calls it "a highly polished museum piece. It's good medicine for contemporary queer audiences to witness the poisonous internal effect of living in an environment of hate and intolerance, now resurgent in an America where screeching far-right conservatism is emboldened and on the rise."

Variety's Owen Gleiberman chronicles the play's many iterations since it premiered in 1968, saying that today viewed "at home in the age of Covid, 'The Boys in the Band' now looks like an ironic valentine of nostalgia to the days when sitting around a tattered New York apartment with friends, even when they have their claws out, feels like one of the most pleasurable things in the world.... "The Boys in the Band" is an homage to how to smile, and bitch, though your heart is breaking."

The view from Britain comes from Peter Bradshaw writing in The Guardian, who gives the film four stars (out of five). "'The Boys in the Band' appears to come from a more innocent, or at least more naive time, as yet politically unradicalised by Aids and the backlash of homophobia, when the issue was acceptance, a goal that seemed to be matter of gradually changing taste. But it's still refreshing to watch something which is, after all, a film of ideas, a spectacle in which people speak to each other in extended paragraphs. It is all unexpectedly potent, particularly in the absurdity and petulance and pain that Parsons crams into his performance. It's a strange, compelling dose of unhappiness."

On the distaff side is Eric Henderson writing in Slate. "In reviving the play on Broadway and transposing the exact cast to a new film adaptation, much as Friedkin did back in 1970, Mantello could arguably have very easily updated the timestamp on the material and set his hostile revelers against each other in present-day New York. There's enough flexibility in the premise to highlight just how far gay rights have come while at the same time acknowledging the restraints many gay men still fight against, expertly outlined by Alan Downs in 'The Velvet Rage.' But that he didn't suggests he's among those who view Crowley's play as a time capsule, if not outright antiquated, rendering the whole enterprise of preserving the stage version in film form weirdly self-amplifying. This 'Boys in the Band' is a Matryoshka doll of period piecery, a flashback of a flashback of a flashback."

The most damning review thus far comes from Richard Lawson in Vanity Fair, who recounts how he saw the Broadway revival and tweeted that he hated it. This brought him some pushback from some who called him (like the characters in the play and film) a self-loathing gay man. "I probably had missed the point from my sour little seat in the mezzanine, fancying myself a more enlightened gay man of a younger, savvier generation. Wasn't it a bit haughty to dismiss this classic as nothing but a hateful relic?

"What Mantello has done with the film is, unfortunately, just as opaque and frustrating as what was on stage. Gone is the jolt of Friedkin's film, which is no testament to formal graces, but at least has the snap and immediacy of something speaking in terms shockingly plain for its time. The new 'Boys in the Band' is only a shallow approximation of that shock, a recreation that so assiduously telegraphs its importance that nothing within it can breathe..."

"Isn't Friedkin's film enough? I'm all for revivals on stage; a play's audience is limited, its life fleeting. But in putting the work back on screen, all that's accomplished is a matting down of 'The Boys in the Band's' prickliness, its once crackling daring. This film takes pride in its recitation of themes—gay men are self-loathing because the world has made them so; monogamy is a poisoned chalice; prioritizing youth and physical beauty is a doomed endeavor—as a kind of demographic duty. But that pride quickly sours into vanity, as if the film imagines itself haloed in glory for bringing word of our ancestors to the gay men of today. To that I say, no thank you. As, maybe, should you. Better to fix yourself a drink and hop on Zoom with your real friends, where you might actually enjoy the company."

Here at EDGE, Kevin Taft falls on the negative side. "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."

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