It’s My Party (1996): Randal (Grease) Kleiser’s AIDS Film, Starring Eric Roberts

Mixing comedy and drama, Randal Kleiser’s It’s My Party is an emotionally candid chronicle of a young gay man with AIDS who decides to terminate his life while he still is in control of his faculties.

Picture feels like a highly personal work, but is severely flawed, as its narrative is all background detail with no dramatic core in which to contain in an absorbing manner its multiple subplots and characters.

Though not as accomplished or emotionally satisfying as “Longtime Companion,” the landmark 1990 AIDS drama, this star-studded studio release will probably do better than other indies about AIDS, but there’s still a question about its cross over appeal.

Nick Stark (Eric Roberts) is a young successful architect engaged in a long-term relationship with Brandon (Gregory Harrison), his handsome lover who’s equally devoted to his filmmaking career.

When the story begins, Nick finds out that he’s HIV-positive and has a short time to live. His healthy companion freaks out, and after a series of arguments and fights they break up, though clearly they’re still very much in love. Rather than succumb to the disease’s debilitating effects, Nick decides to take charge and end his life as he’s lived it–with gusto and joy. As a prelude to his death, he hosts a two-day farewell party to which he invites all of his friends and family members.

With its loose-knit screenplay, dozens of characters (some actors play themselves), overlapping dialogue and sound, and other devices, “It’s My Party” boasts an Altmanesque structure, but without Altmans’s savvy or wit–it’s more “Ready to Wear” than “Nashville” or “Shortcuts.”

There are some wonderfully spontaneous and humorous sequences, but ultimately it’s a movie of moments that suffers from too much colorful periphery and not enough center. Indeed, once the core situation is established, the picture has nowhere to go and what unfolds onscreen is a continuous parade of friends and guests who wander around the house, each getting a snippet of dialogue or a bitchy one-liner, the kind that characterizes gay subculture.

The film’s only dramatic interest is to see at what point Brandon, who arrives uninvited to the party, will apologize for his misconduct and declare anew his love for Nick. During the two-day event, the two cross paths several times, with the audience waiting impatiently for the big scene, their reunion. That said, once it arrives, the scene is emotionally effective: Observing Brandon carrying Nick in his arms to his death bed, will reduce many viewers to tears.

One of the yarn’s most interesting aspects is the contrast between Nick’s biological family with his “real” family, a group of friends that includes Tony (Paul Regina), a former b.f. who now protects his health and interests, and Charlene (Margaret Cho), the loyal fag-hag who insists Brandon still belongs to the inner circle.

It may be a tribute to their superlative acting that Nick’s blood family comes across as a loving, most caring unit, especially Nick’s divorced mother, Amalia (Lee Grant) and his sensitive sister, Daphne (Marlee Matlin). Some tension prevails when Nick’s father (George Segal), who had never accepted his son’s homosexuality, arrives and has to deal with his still bitter wife but very forgiving son.

Kleiser has managed to construct a tale that’s emotionally uplifting and in moments even inspiring, without being overly sentimental. The lead characters are extremely engaging, but two-dimensional, particularly Nick, who seems to accept his fate without any resentment, bitterness or anger. About half an hour of the film’s time is spent on Nick’s delivering personal farewells–and personal gifts–to his family and friends, with prolonged hugs and kisses.

In what seems like a comeback, after a decade of mostly straight-to-video movies, Roberts acquits himself with a decent performance in a difficult role of a saintly man who has no rough edges. The highly photogenic Harrison does a better job of acting, though one wants to know more about his character, particularly during the breakup. To his credit, Kleiser adds some unexpected dimensions to the couple’s split so that Brandon won’t appear utterly villainous. However, devices like brief flashbacks are routinely and disappointingly used to sketch the couple’s happier times together. Yarn would have been dramatically richer, if it focused more on how each man lived after the tumultuous breakup rather than on Nick’s final days.

Tech credits, particularly Bernd Heinl’s fluid camera and Ila Von Hasperg’s smooth editing make for an intermittently enjoyable film, which in the hands of a different director could have been solemn and dreary considering its grave subject matter.

End Note:

As expected, the film, which world premiered at the 1996 Sundance Film Fest, was a commercial flop, grossing only $622,533.