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It’s My Party is that seeming oxymoron, a feel-good movie about death.
In writer-director Randal Kleiser’s film, an AIDS patient faced with encroaching dementia decides to take his own life. But not before he stages his own farewell bash, surrounding himself with family and friends for one last blowout. It’s a maudlin premise, but his guests prove a remarkably good-humored bunch. They eat. They drink. They sing the title’s Leslie Gore song with the inevitable lyric change, “…and I’ll die if I want to.”
It’s My Party opens one year before the celebration. Nick (Eric Roberts), an architect, and Brandon (Gregory Harrison), a director, live together in the Hollywood hills. Their moneyed haven seems invulnerable. Nick gives Brandon a pair of horses for his birthday, which the couple ride along the scenic bluffs behind their sprawling house. They have a pool out back. They have a fireplace in the bathroom. All is good. Until the discovery that Nick is HIV positive initiates the dissolution of their life together. Brandon withdraws almost immediately, eventually taking up with his young production assistant and kicking Nick out of the house.
The pair don’t speak again until Nicks invites Brandon to his send-off. Though Nick is the nominal center of attention, Party is also concerned with Brandon’s emotional enlightenment. He must make his way through a modified Ebeneezer Scrooge scenario, granted one last chance to learn compassion before Nick’s demise. Not to worry: The film is the kind from which no character is likely to emerge without learning a valuable lesson.
Party is peopled with such an improbable conglomeration of has-beens that one expects to see John Waters listed as casting director. Sally Kellerman, Olivia Newton-John, Roddy McDowall, Bronson Pinchot, George Segal, and Greg Louganis are among the actors who portray Nick’s extended family. It’s hard to maintain the proper level of seriousness, when Nick’s house looks more and more like the Hollywood Squares green room with each new arrival.
In keeping with the Tinseltown truism that there’s no such thing as a gay man who isn’t colorful and amusing, Nick’s homosexual friends are a flamboyant bunch. Pinchot’s Monty Tipton is the most grating of the lot, spouting one-liners like, “Avocado’s a fruit…and so am I,” with every breath. Nick’s family and straight friends are on hand as well, and everyone mingles so effortlessly that the gathering begins to resemble a fantasy sequence. Nick’s guests may be uncomfortable with death, but they’re not uncomfortable with homosexuality. Indeed, his circle of friends seems impossibly broad-minded: Nick, for instance, is honorary uncle to his friends’ gay son, who matter-of-factly asks Nick’s ex things like, “Uncle Brandon, why’d you and Nick break up?”
At times, Party adopts the pedantic tone of an educational filmstrip. Lest the audience miss the point, Nick has a large cross on his wall surrounded with snapshots of his friends who’ve died from AIDS. Yet the film largely sidesteps the horror of the disease. Nick is relatively fortunate: He exits looking his best and wisecracking to the end.
It’s difficult to believe that anyone could really kick up their heels at an event like the one depicted in the film. The audience is likely to side with the guest who asks, “How come everybody’s acting so normal?” Nobody raises any serious objection to Nick’s offing himself. McDowall’s Damian Knowles is the one character who questions Nick’s decision, but his half-hearted argument plays like a scripter’s afterthought. And even if a house full of people did accept the imminent suicide of their host with equanimity, the repeated playings of “I Will Always Love You” would almost certainly send at least one of them screaming from the house.
Central to Party is the sentimental notion that terminal illness confers wisdom. Since Nick’s imminent demise grants him a sort of moral authority, he doles out lifetime advice to everyone in attendance. In fact, he becomes a sort of reverse genie, with everyone he talks to forced to grant him a wish. In addition to offering up wise words on everything from safe sex to self-actualization, Nick asks his mother to stop smoking and gives his best friend hairstyle tips. “Get those bangs out of your eyes, you have a beautiful face,” he urges.
Party attempts to sustain its fevered emotional pitch far too long. Much of the film is spent waiting for a graceful fade-out that seems ever imminent but never materializes. It hardly seems fair to put viewers in the position of thinking, “OK, OK, get on with it.” But the filmmakers are determined to spare the audience nothing. A must-see for anyone who’s ever wondered what it would be like if the leave-taking scene from The Wizard of Oz were drawn out for the length of an entire film.CP