When medical science finally finds a cure for everything, will movies about death still be as sad? Or will they merely be quaint guilty pleasures, like a Helen of Troy mini-series on cable? I'm afraid I won't live to know the answer. So in the meantime, how else can we react to Thom Fitzgerald's The Event but with crocodile tears and a discreet, celebratory feather boa?
The first time we see Matt (Don McKellar), a good-natured, shaggy haired young cellist dying of AIDS, he's already dead, surrounded by the people -- from his mother to a drag queen to a married lesbian couple, and all points in between -- who have just spent the evening attending his farewell suicide party.
Cut to a police station, where a solemn prosecutor (Parker Posey, in her worst performance yet) returns to work after time off to deal with her father's death. She picks up Matt's case file, smells something fishy, and proceeds to investigate Matt's death beginning with Brian (Brent Carver), who runs a community health center in Manhattan for end-stage AIDS patients.
How did Matt and Brian meet? Why, cute, of course. Brian is Canadian, and on his flight to New York City, he ends up seated next to Matt. The two gay men get drunk together, and Matt harasses the old crone across the aisle who's bothered by his precious cello, which occupies the seat next to her. Matt excuses himself to the restroom. Brian follows. And inside the little water closet, the two men literally set off alarms when they light a joint and join the Mile Get-High Club.
From there, the police investigation moves forward while the story of Matt's last few months unfolds in easy-to-follow flashbacks. At Thanksgiving dinner one night, in the kitchen with his plucky mother, Lila (Olympia Dukakis), Matt finally comes out, and Lila tells a shocked Matt that she already knew. ("Your last girlfriend was your prom date, and you did her makeup.") Then, Matt drops the other shoe: "There's something else. I'm sick." Tears ensue, both onscreen and off, with many more to come as Fitzgerald and his co-screenwriter, Steven Hillyer, walk us through the bittersweet business of saying goodbye.
After so many years, so many movies, and so many deaths, I almost feel petty saying that Longtime Companion is still the best movie ever made about AIDS. With its lovely, unforced acting and its elegant script, it may be all we ever really needed.
The Event is equally sad, and the sadness is equally earned. On the other hand, it's somewhat over-plotted and over-long, and at times it simply tries too hard to fill the silence. The prosecuting attorney has a stale "secret" that fuels her tenacity, Matt has a homophobic uncle whom Lila puts in his place, and the whole suicide pact unravels when one of Matt's berdache bar buddies walks off stage after singing some Mikado (as a geisha) and spills the beans to the first guy who offers to buy him a drink. (Guess what: He's a cop!) The cello, of course, is the perfect instrument for a dirge, and so Matt leaves behind a musical gift to Brian, his devoted friend who was never a lover.
Dukakis, who may be Hollywood's most gay-positive actress -- who can forget her kindly and avuncular Mrs. Madrigal in Tales of the City -- is like butter in her role of a Jewish mother who'll do anything for her boy, including end his life at his request (after all, she gave it to him). Jane Leeves -- Frasier's Limey, here speaking American -- is a wacko shrink who spends Matt's therapy sessions weeping on his shoulder. And as the dying Matt, Don McKellar -- a Canadian actor and filmmaker (he wrote Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould) -- is almost too roguish, vivacious and appealing to think of as a dying man. That, no doubt, is what Fitzgerald had in mind when he cast him.
The Event is probably best watched as a series of dramatic impressions and snapshots distilled from the lives of so many people who have lived and died through AIDS in the past two decades. We see -- thankfully, only in flashes -- the indignities of the body toward the end of the disease, and the reactions of Matt's friends and family generally feel honest enough. The suffering is sprinkled with tart humor -- Matt's sister's audition for a vaginal cream commercial is a hoot -- but never for long: Her audition takes place just after Matt tells her he has AIDS, so naturally her comical tantrum turns to tears. All in all, The Event is small, sweet, sincere, heartbreaking and just enough to make you want to pray that some day soon, Jesus will call the Rev. Donald Wildmon home.