Thom Fitzgerald’s “The Event”; A Gallows Humor AIDS Drama With Some Tender Moments
by Scott Foundas
The first thing you see in Thom Fitzgerald’s “The Event” is the corpse of Matt Shapiro (Don McKellar) being zipped into a body bag and carried away from his Chelsea apartment by a team of paramedics, while “Spirit in the Sky” blasts on the soundtrack. Which is more than a bit like that moment at the beginning of Brad Silberling’s “Moonlight Mile” where the family piles in the car on their way to a funeral only to have Sly and the Family Stone come screaming out of the radio. And your hopes are momentarily lifted that “The Event” might turn out to be the kind of acidly comic take on death and its aftermath that Silberling tried for and only halfway achieved.
But unfortunately, “The Event” is not that movie — not by a longshot. Despite its fleeting attempts at a kind-of Lindsay Anderson-esque gallows humor, this is an unrelentingly unpleasant, impossibly maudlin melodrama, made not only as though the AIDS crisis had just begun five minutes ago, but as though no film before had ever addressed its devastating repercussions. It’s a pedantic, preachy work, of noble intent, but with little genuine feeling. And to boot, it’s one of the fuzziest, grungiest-looking of recent DV features.
The film’s title refers to a “going away” party staged by the AIDS-ravaged Matt as a last celebration with friends and family before his planned suicide. And it is also the subject of an investigation by the New York City justice department, where an upstart assistant district attorney (a stunningly miscast Parker Posey) has reason to believe that Matt’s death was but one in a series of suicides “assisted” by Matt’s longtime partner (and AIDS hospice worker) Brian (Brent Carver). So, Fitzgerald and his co-screenwriters, Tim Marback and Steven Hillyer, proceed to tell two crosscut narratives: the one depicting Matt and Brian in happier days; the other comprised of a series of police-station interrogations by which Posey and company attempt to squeeze “The Truth” out of those who attended Matt’s party.
This is, of course, material that has already been examined extensively (to say nothing of more deftly) in gay cinema, particularly by Randal Kleiser’s “It’s My Party” (which hardly seemed a major film at the time, but which grows larger in your mind while watching “The Event”). But “The Event” plods along with all the faux-earnestness of some of the first TV programs that addressed AIDS in the 1980s — nearly everyone in front of and behind the camera can’t stop reminding us what a terribly noble endeavor this is. The actors (with the exception of McKellar, who fares surprisingly well given his one-dimensional “I’m dying but I can still crack a joke about it” character) stand around motionless, declaiming their lines in leaden theatrical cadences, as if the import of the words was a heavy weight around their necks. And you’re never too far away from a “viral load” poster on the wall, or some other bit of statistical info obtusely worked into D’Arcy Poultney’s production design.
Fitzgerald has said that this project was a long time in development, and that’s hardly difficult to believe. Save for the occasional reference to contemporary politics and culture, the flashbacks to Matt’s life before and during his illness, though set in the late 1990s, could have taken place two decades ago. They’re littered with stereotypical encounters based on people’s ignorance about the disease, like when Matt’s uncle comes over to the house and covers his mouth so he won’t “catch” AIDS. And from what moth-filled bureau was unearthed the scene where Matt’s mother (played by Olympia Dukakis in the movie’s only other full-bodied performance) breaks bread with a black drag queen in a blonde wig?
“The Event” goes down with all the subtlety of a horse tranquilizer, and with more false endings than there are pills in most AIDS patients’ daily drug cocktails. There are some authentically tender and moving encounters here, particularly those between McKellar and Dukakis. But any good will the movie builds up is completely eradicated by the howlingly misconceived “investigation” sequences, in which the DAs and cops (not a gay one among them, by the way) try as hard as possible to be insensitive to Matt’s plight.