Joe Mantello's new version of the landmark gay play features great performances but feels somewhat restrained by its period setting
“Your lips are turning blue; you look like you’ve been rimming a snowman.” Behold just one of the many quick quips to feature in Netflix’s The Boys in the Band. In this new rendition of the 1968 Mart Crowley play, Michael (Jim Parsons) gathers his nearest and queerest to celebrate Harold’s (Zachary Quinto) birthday, only for things to go awry when Michael’s straight college buddy (Brian Hutchison) drops in, inciting Michael to back the (very gay) partygoers into the proverbial closet to keep the secret of his sexuality.
But this untimely arrival merely catalyses the chaos already brewing. A passive-aggressive feud plays out between boyfriends Larry (Andrew Rannells) and Hank (Tuc Watkins) as they disagree over monogamy; the awkwardness only intensifies with one of Larry’s one-time lovers, Donald (Matt Bomer), in the mix. To calm his anxiety, Michael breaks his sobriety, with the liquor only sharpening his snide and sour insults, many of which are targeted at Emory (Robin de Jesús), the campest of the group, and the guest of honour, who is late, high and insecure about his pock-marked cheeks. Each man’s self-loathing permeates to the fore as shade, but the thinly veiled truth is sad and apparent.
Indeed, Boys was first conceived prior to any mainstream notions of Pride. The original play and William Friedkin’s 1970 screen adaptation are recognised as landmark moments in queer representation and as artefacts of the 1960s gay experience. This Joe Mantello-directed, Ryan Murphy-produced version, however, is little more than a remake of Friedkin’s work. The best lines (and the worst) are lifted wholesale from the original script, as are many directorial choices. Squandering the opportunity to apply updates for contemporary relevance shrouds the film in self-doubt, with this new version proving less delicate in its handling of both the camera and the subtler story moments.
What Mantello does contribute is adept management of tone. This is apparent in how the initial gaiety gradually descends into darkness when Michael introduces the Telephone Game. Each participant must call up the one person they have truly loved and confess their feelings. It’s in this enclosed microcosm that the all-gay cast shines. Parsons and Quinto are the standouts; the former’s increasingly inebriated and reckless jibes ricochet off of the latter’s collected persona and natural gravitas. Jesús brings charisma and authenticity to Emory, making this camp queen the most likeable in the room.
Queer cinema has evolved significantly in the last 50 years, so anchoring Boys firmly in its 60s roots makes it feel out of time, while its lack of innovation leaves room to question its purpose. Nonetheless, this is a fun, vibrant, and shady remake with a cast you certainly won’t mind spending the sum of two hours with.
The Boys in the Band is now streaming on Netflix.Where to watch