Dangerous Minds and Jeffrey come shining onto the big screen secure of a certain success based on their high-minded and topical subject matter. Both of these issue-oriented movies take off from an earnest, PC starting point: Dangerous Minds is the latest in a long and shaky line of one-noble-teacher-making-a-difference-in-the-inner-city movies and Jeffrey examines the social effect of the AIDS crisis on the gay community. Both movies are trips through hot button territory, but they're different rides. Dangerous Minds is a one-trick pony, circling with busy seriousness, while Jeffrey is rangy and sure-footed and covers ground handily.
From Jeffrey, we get a clear look at love stories, images of modern existence and the experience of gay life in the age of AIDS. From Dangerous Minds, we get a much narrower perspective. Michelle Pfeiffer, portraying real-life superteacher LouAnne Johnson, is always on-screen, and the gifted cast portraying the at-risk students end up as little more than props. Producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, the men behind such comedy and action epics as Bad Boys and Crimson Tide, have turned a film that could have been an inspirational look at what students can do into the tale of one fabulous person's triumph -- an action-adventure movie about a hero of education who saves those in peril and bashes the bad guys.
Those in peril -- the students and, in some cases, their parents -- are given short shrift. For all we know of their personal lives, their wants and needs, they might as well be nameless villagers saved from a monster. The intelligence of a gifted student such as Callie Roberts (Bruklin Harris) isn't shown by her words or deeds, though she, like at least half the students in the film, has the occasional bright remark. Instead, we learn that Callie is special because LouAnne Johnson says she is.
LouAnne Johnson is just one person who says a lot in Dangerous Minds. This is a dialogue-heavy movie, which could work if the words had some rhythm or some zip. Unfortunately they don't. Most of the students get a grateful line -- "You are our light," as in "rage, rage against the dying of" -- or haltingly respond to their teacher's prompting. Even at the end of the semester, once teacher Johnson has supposedly worked her magic, her students speak in two tones, responding to questions as though participating in an English class is a wholly new and intimidating experience.
This makes it difficult for the actors cast as the class to show any real character development, even though the actors exhibit obvious talent. Perhaps because much screen time is taken up by soundtrack, almost all of the character detail is given in straight exposition -- students tell the teach what their lives are like, and later what she means to them, in plain language. Because this lot is supposed to be disenfranchised, sullen teens, their forthright speeches strike a sour note.
Jeffrey also has its share of forthright speeches, but given that they come from people who are obviously verbal, and given that the speeches are written to be more engaging, they present no problem to the viewer. Indeed, they're just one more attractive thing about a film that boasts a number of attractive elements, probably the most important being a strong, well-developed cast of supporting characters. Our repressed hero, Jeffrey (Steven Weber of Wings) has close friends, parents and even people in the street who are interested in his love life, or at least in the idea of romance. All these people have screen time enough to reveal themselves as unique and specific, characters who can maintain their integrity through a festive collection of musical numbers and fantasy sequences.
Jeffrey, a young gay actor/waiter living in New York, is a man so obsessed with the fear of AIDS that he's chosen to give up sex. Better celibacy than death, Jeffrey, not so irrationally, thinks. Only for Jeffrey, abstinence from sex also translates into abstinence from romance and, in a way, abstinence from life. When some friends invite him for dinner, only to try and fix him up with a dream boat, Jeffrey flees. On the sidewalks of a Manhattan neighborhood Jeffrey argues with his friends, and others out for a stroll join in to comment on his choices. "He's refusing a date?" says a not-so-attractive woman, "I hate him!" Anyone can relate to her point of view. From an old white guy and a young black man, there's just a question: "No nasty?" Anyone can relate to their point of view. This group of ordinary folk, all of whom have their reasons for thinking Jeffrey is nuts, becomes an incredulous mob, chasing Jeffrey down the street and finally forcing him to agree to a date with the dream boat, Steve (Michael T. Weiss).
This scene is not, of course, realistic. In real life, anonymous crowds horning in on someone's love life is more likely to be threatening than charming, but verisimilitude and truth are different issues. The point is people need love. And people need sex. And it's a point that can be made by having passersby join in a conversation with an overwhelmed Jeffrey.
Of course, we don't get to the "happy every after" stage yet; it's still early in the film. And Steve is HIV-positive, something that Jeffrey ... well, just saying Jeffrey can't handle it is an understatement.
To help him out, Jeffrey ends up pulling Mother Theresa into his neurotic struggle. The wizened nun, whom he cheerily greets as "Terry," is a laugh-getter. But she's also a symbol of Jeffrey's uneasy relationship with the Catholic Church. As a gay man who's out and open, Jeffrey has chosen not to be active in the Church, which has likewise chosen not to be active with him. Yet Jeffrey still hopes his faith might offer answers.
A priest, Father Dan (Nathan Lane), is certainly glad to help him out -- after, that is, he cops a feel or two. In Father Dan's enthusiastic theology, God is in classic show tunes (Lerner and Loewe) and Satan lurks in inferior musicals (Miss Saigon, Les Miserables and Sunset Boulevard). This brief description might seem to describe a gag, a lusting priest and easy camp. But the film never gives in to such easy stereotypes or laughs; rather, it makes Jeffrey's talk with the priest instructive, with lessons about the loneliness of celibacy and the dilemma of those who need a religion that has apparently rejected them.
This high-priest-of-show-tunes segment is restrained compared to another sequence, one in which Jeffrey and his frustrated suitor, Steve, are waiting tables and tending bar at a fundraiser, the Hoe-Down for AIDS. The whimsy comes when Steve says, "In a perfect world we could do-si-do," and, poof! Suddenly the costumed waiters are on the dance floor for an erotic Busby Berkeley-style square dance.
This brash episode is given as evidence of Steve's zest for life, and the "gather ye rosebuds while ye may" philosophy embraced by many of the men around Jeffrey. Paul Rudnick, author of the award-winning play the movie's based on as well as the Jeffrey screenplay, clearly has a deep love of musicals. So it's no wonder that his film is built like an old-fashioned example of that genre. Jeffrey, employing theatrical contrivances with abandon, doesn't bother much with realism. And, like an old-fashioned musical, Jeffrey moves gracefully between broad comedy numbers and tragic torch songs. Vignettes, asides to the camera, dream sequences, characters' solos and realistic episodes in the narrative are all useful parts of a carefully composed whole. The rhythm of the plot, the play between the silly and somber, strike just the right balance, making Jeffrey work like a song you can't forget.
Dangerous Minds, on the other hand, is far from musical. It doesn't ring with anything, and it doesn't resonate. The early and the middle and the late scenes of classroom interaction could be switched, and it would make little or no difference. The first scene, where the students are not at their desks, and the last, where the teacher is sitting on hers, are about all we get in the way of variety. Even the feel-good and humorous scenes are self-conscious with higher purpose. The movie never relaxes, even when the events are supposed to show the students feeling at ease with their teacher.
Admittedly, wild flights of fancy would not be appropriate for Dangerous Minds, but the grim sameness of its scenes is stifling, making the movie dull and difficult to follow. We care about the students because we've been conditioned to care about the tragedy of inner-city youth, not because we know anything unique about the kids in this movie, not because we can see them, individually or as a group, evolving.
Dangerous Minds isn't a bad movie, necessarily. But it would have been much better if it had taken a break from the "one teacher can make a difference" theme and delved into the lives of a few of the students, maybe even spent some time looking at why superteachers of the LouAnne Johnson variety show up so rarely in public (or private, for that matter) schools.
Dangerous Minds is flawed, but it does have good timing. Opening just in time to capitalize on the back-to-school mindset, this minor-league drama about a major-league subject has quality performances all around and a chance to be an inspiration for troubled students and frustrated teachers both, even if it's a chance based more on what the movie promises than on what it delivers.
But it is Jeffrey, despite being explicitly gay, that has the much broader appeal. It just goes to show that if you produce a strong, well made movie about life and death issues, and about love, you've made a movie that everyone can enjoy.
Directed by Christopher Ashley. With Steven Weber, Patrick Stewart, Michael T. Weiss and Bryan Batt.
Directed by John N. Smith. With Michelle Pfeiffer and George Dzundza.
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