‘The Boys in the Band’ delivers stellar performances, but doesn’t reinvent the wheel

Photo of Netflix's "Boys in the Band"
Netflix/Courtesy

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Grade: 4.0/5.0

In 1968, the two-act drama “The Boys in the Band” debuted off-Broadway to become a controversial cult classic. Written by Mart Crowley, the play centers on an ensemble cast of gay men at a birthday party in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. When host Michael’s conservative college roommate drops in unannounced, however, the group begins to wrestle with unresolved tensions and deep personal baggage.

The play was a confrontation of mainstream sensibilities for what later critics called an intersectional approach to Queer issues — from its complex portrayal of the gay working class and men of color to its deeply empathic exploration of polyamory, the play has long been considered a landmark in mainstream Queer media.

This history is written all over the new Netflix-exclusive film adaptation. Directed by Joe Mantello and adapted to the screen by Crowley himself, the film sees the play’s complete 2018 cast of the Broadway run return to reprise its roles; there’s a certain amount of star power at work in this new rendition. From its opening scenes as Donald (Matt Bomer) and Michael (Jim Parsons) banter about personal anxieties while preparing for the party, there’s a tangible charm in simply seeing these celebrated Queer actors perform alongside one another.

But as the film continues, the cast fully earns the hype placed upon it. Parsons is simply breathtaking, from his lofty manipulative highs to his harrowingly tragic lows. “The Big Bang Theory” star has certainly had impressive dramatic roles so far in his career, but he proves himself as a force to be reckoned with throughout “The Boys in the Band.” Equally enthralling is Zachary Quinto as Harold, who is apt to steal every scene with his mysterious and erudite intensity. It’s hard to mark either of these bankable leads as the film’s standout performance, however, seeing as every actor has an equal claim to that honor. Whether delivering hilarious backhanded banter or gut-wrenching heartbreak, the entire cast exudes talent and complexity, each with more unforgettable character moments than can be listed.

A decidedly theatrical style further places emphasis on these excellent performances. Aside from the occasional establishing montage and flashback, “The Boys in the Band” more or less holds onto the motifs of a two-act ensemble drama, blocking its actors and camera positions to emulate a very particular stage environment. From the principal setting of Michael’s spacious two-floor apartment — utilized as a sort of two-platform stage — to its carefully framed soliloquies, the film takes the conventions of its original medium and runs with them.

Some audiences may feel understandably let down by this particular stylistic direction. With so many more tools to play with by telling this familiar story on film, there’s a certain amount of disappointment that “The Boys in the Band” at times feels more like a recorded, multicamera theatrical production. This approach also inadvertently calls attention to moments when the source material feels the most dated: presenting a pre-Stonewall, pre-HIV/AIDS, 20th century Queer community to a modern audience keenly familiar with these developments in LGBTQ+ discourse. For every two timeless insights into Queer identity and trauma, there’s one that simply feels of its time, holding the film back from feeling like a truly modernized rendition. 

Indeed, it’s this dilemma that decidedly makes or breaks “The Boys in the Band.” Held up against its also excellently performed theatrical counterparts and another 1970 film adaptation — which both also happen to lack the pressure to adapt for a modern audience — it’s hard to see where exactly the 2020 rendition does anything particularly novel. Given the opportunity to do so, it’s puzzling that the film invests so little in trying. But considering the pure strength of its performances and the cohesiveness of its visual aesthetics, it’s also hard to find fault with what the film does pursue. While “The Boys in the Band” refrains from reimagining its source material, at the very least, it preserves the narrative’s strengths in all the right places.

Olive Grimes covers film. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @ogrimes5.