'Boys in the Band' review: Jim Parsons brings shattering intensity to the funny film

The film is based on Mart Crowley’s play about the gay community.

You'll be surprised to see Jim Parsons, the comic engine behind "The Big Bang Theory," bring such shattering intensity to this funny and fierce film version of Mart Crowley's play "The Boys in the Band." Parsons takes the role of Michael, a neurotic writer who enlists Donald (Matt Bomer) to help him throw a birthday bash for their mutual friend, Harold (Zachary Quinto), in Michael's Greenwich Village duplex.

Sounds basic enough except that Michael, Donald, Harold and nearly all the party guests are gay. That may be no big whoop for millennial audiences, but back in 1968, when the play was first staged off-Broadway, "The Boys in the Band" rocked the theatrical world with its frank treatment of gay characters. The 1970 film version with most of the original cast, who pitch barbs at each other to disguise their own self-loathing, also caused shockwaves.

Viewed from a present-day perspective, post-AIDS epidemic and the age of enlightenment, the play can seem dated -- but just in the surface details. At its core, "The Boys in the Band" deals with the persecution of any individual or group that society marginalizes. That theme is as timely as it is tragic. It's no wonder the 2018 Broadway revival won a Tony award. Now, producer Ryan Murphy, director Joe Mantello and the the same all-star, all-gay cast, have brought that production to Netflix -- and the result is revelatory.

Laughs are what animate the action as nine men prepare for the party, including Cowboy (Charlie Carver), a sweetly dumb male hustler purchased for the night as a gift for Harold.

One complication is the arrival of Alan (Brian Hutchinson), Michael's straight roommate from their college days who is shocked to see the men at Michael's apartment dancing to Motown. Alan bristles at the sight of the flamboyant decorator Emory (Robin de Jesús), much preferring the preppy vibe of Hank (Tuc Watkins) until he learns that Hank has left his wife and family for Larry (a superb Andrew Rannells), who can't stop cheating on him.

The tension mounts as Michael dares each man to phone the first person they ever loved. The calls range from campy to poignant, as when Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington), a Black librarian, dials the closeted son of his mother's wealthy white employer. Still, the real duel is between Michael and Harold. Quinto dips his voice in velvet to deliver Harold's toxic bon mots. "Turning," says Harold as his verbal darts hit Michael who sees himself in his tormented friend. Parsons brings tremendous feeling to Michael's plea. "If we could only learn to not hate ourselves so much," he says.

In the 50 years since "The Boys in the Band" was written, gay pride has become a strong corrective to gay guilt. But it's impossible to watch this artifact of the past without thinking of a divisive right now when homophobia and threats to minorities are resurgent. Spiked with quips that sting, "The Boys in the Band" is both a reminder and wake-up call for the battle ahead. Prepare for an emotional powerhouse.

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