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Movie Review

Witty `Punks' Takes Romantic Comedy Into New Territory

November 16, 2001|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The only thing punk about "Punks," a groundbreaking black gay male romantic comedy, is its cheesy trailer that suggests it's primarily a drag performance film. In fact, it is terrific entertainment, full of wit and energy, alternately hilarious and serious--and very sexy. What's more, there's nothing tacky about the film's drag numbers: They are briskly staged and feature dazzling costumes.

Think of "Punks" as a gay male counterpart to "Waiting to Exhale." Hill (Dwight Ewell), Marcus (Seth Gilliam) and Chris (Jazzmun) share a West Hollywood Hills residence with drop-dead high-tech decor. Hill is an HIV-positive health club spa manager whose 30th birthday celebration is ruined when his French lover (Rudolf Martin) is discovered in an embrace with another man.

Marcus is a successful young photographer, labeled "a hopeless romantic" by Hill because he resists casual sex and holds out for Mr. Right. Chris is a full-time drag queen who performs as Crystal in a group called the Sisters at Miss Smokie's, a black gay club. Dante (Renoly Santiago) is a rich kid from Beverly Hills who hangs out with the roommates so much he might as well be living with them.

Hill and Dante are in-your-face, fun-loving pleasure-pursuers with a mastery of outrageous repartee. Chris is fast with a retort; as Crystal, he is doing a Diana Ross on the Sisters, threatening to wreck their sharp lip-synch act (to Sister Sledge songs). Chris has a secret lover, and a brief glimpse of him hidden behind sunglasses, floppy hat and long coat suggests he could be a celebrity leading a double life. When the friends spot a new neighbor moving in, they fall all over themselves rushing to help him carry boxes. It's no wonder, for Darby (Rockmond Dunbar) is a composer with a bodybuilder's physique and a man who combines charm, intellect, humor and kindness with an easy, laid-back manner. Needless to say, his effect on his neighbors is overwhelming, and they're quickly inviting themselves over for dinner. When Darby casually remarks that his girlfriend will soon be arriving from New York, he clears the room as if had just announced he had the plague.

Marcus, the most serious of his friends, is not surprisingly the one who stays, attracted to Darby's mind as well as his body. The very real possibility that Marcus is opening himself up to an avalanche of unrequited love gradually propels him to consider breaking out of his shell and start attempting to have a love life while developing a solid platonic relationship with the wise and mature Darby. (The wonderful Loretta Devine has a cameo as a health counselor who assures Marcus that sex can be safe.) Gilliam, Ewell, Santiago and Jazzmun have personality and charisma to spare, and Dunbar has everything it takes to be a movie star.

"Punks" has heart, courage and pungent survivors' humor, and it marks a standout feature debut for writer-director Patrik-Ian Polk and for cinematographer Rory King, who gives the film a consistently high-quality look despite an eight-day (and night) shooting schedule. Polk's attacks on unsafe sex and substance abuse could not be made in a more direct yet entertaining context.

Most important, "Punks" depicts a far more inclusive and welcoming world than most gay white male movies, where ethnic and racial minorities, sad to say, tend to be rarities or remain in the background. It's a point that Polk makes with the utmost subtlety in a film that is as thoughtful as it is exhilarating.

MPAA-rated: R, for strong sexual content, including graphic dialogue, and for language. Times guidelines: Mature themes and situations; the sex is more talk than action but is blunt.

'Punks'

Seth Gilliam...Marcus

Dwight Ewell...Hill

Renoly Santiago...Dante

Rockmond Dunbar...Darby Cannon

Jazzmun...Crystal/Chris

An Urbanworld presentation. Writer-director Patrik-Ian Polk. Producers Tracey E. Edmonds, Michael McQuarn, Patrik-Ian Polk. Executive producers Kenneth (Babyface) Edmonds and Stacy Spikes. Cinematographer Rory King. Editor Anne Misawa. Executive music producers for Urbanworld Films Barry Cole and Christopher Covert. Choreographer Marguerite Derricks. Costumes Linda Stokes for LSO Designs. Production designer Liana Reid. Art director Erin Smith. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.

Exclusively at the Fairfax Cinemas, Beverly Boulevard at Fairfax Avenue, L.A., (323) 655-4010; and the Playhouse 7, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 844-6500.

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