Jumping the gun on the more-celebrated Jeffrey or Angels in America, The Sum of Us hits the screen via an Obie-Award winning off-Broadway theater run. Harry is a gruff, bawdy retiree who just can't seem to stop mucking about with his roommate's love life. Jeff is a shy, attractive, 24-year-old rugby-playing plumber. They're no odd couple; they're father and son, a combination made more fascinating by the off-hand revelation that Jeff is gay and out of the closet, and Harry is his welcoming, match-making father.
The movie is filled with great comedic moments, some lighter, some heavy-handed. One of the best is when Harry comes on too strong with Jeff's date and nearly chases him out of the house. Later in the film, Harry literally steers the two together in one of the funniest and possibly most politically incorrect scenes in recent gay film. The tone is balanced out by Jeff's hesitancy in the romance department, and Harry's relationship with his new girlfriend, Joyce, who doesn't know Jeff is gay.
The two lead actors give outstanding performances. As Jeff, Russell Crowe is generous, sincere, honest, and loyal - everything the gay community has wanted for years to see on the screen. As a young man once too often burned by love and insecure about his attractiveness, Crowe gives a strong yet understated performance. Jeff's life isn't the fairest or easiest but, even at his worst, he never seems beaten or unlikable. As Harry, Jack Thompson's comedic performance is almost over the top. He handles his bawdiest lines smoothly and saves most of his energy for quieter moments with his girlfriend and with Jeff. Both characters break the wall and talk directly to the audience, but the performances are so strong that the affectation is quickly overlooked and becomes something the audience looks forward to.
The film features cinema's most gay-positive images, bar none. The film focuses on Harry and Jeff's relationship first and on Jeff's homosexuality second, but writer David Stevens (working from his own play) and Director Kevin Dowling (who also directed the stage version) blend the two themes to create what is possibly the first gay/family comedy. Although the characters' relationships are haunted by AIDS and homophobia, their everyday lives are filled with the same joys and pains, loves and irritations, that constitute every family's.
Gay men and women and their relationships are at the heart of this incredibly family-positive movie. Not every family in the film is as perfect as Jeff and Harry's, but their relationship - the center of the film - is a model for families everywhere: gay, straight, or mixed. No dysfunction here; also no whining, blame-placing, manipulation, or guilt. Jeff and Harry's relationship is something to envy. Though life threw him a twist he didn't expect, Harry accepts and encourages Jeff's interests, romantic and otherwise. At the point where Harry must rely on Jeff's support, Jeff sacrifices his time and energy to be with his father, seemingly at the expense of almost everything else in his life. How often does the gay and lesbian community get to see positive self-images in the context of family relationships? Not often enough.
Maybe the Australians know something that studios in the U.S. are just catching on to. The Sum of Us received the Best Feature award at the 1994 Sydney Film Festival, three 1994 Film Circle Critics of Australia awards, including Best Picture, and six Australia Film Institute nominations, including Best Picture and Best Screenplay. The lead and supporting roles are all filled by well-known award- winning Australian actors. The Sum of Us is a first-rate production that doesn't come along that often. It should not be missed.
- BILL OLVER
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