Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Normal Heart (2014)

There's no good way to talk about The Normal Heart, HBO's latest TV movie, without first discussing Larry Kramer's 1985 play of the same name on which the film is based (Kramer wrote the screenplay). Kramer is a playwright, a founder of the Gay Men's Health Crisis and ACT UP, and one of the most outspoken AIDS activists of the 1980s. When The Normal Heart opened Off-Broadway in 1985, President Ronald Reagan had not even used the term "AIDS" in public yet, despite the epidemic having raged for nearly four years at that point. The play was a theatrical pipe bomb aimed squarely at an American society that was all too willing to ignore the tens of thousands of people - mostly gay men - who were dying from this terrifying, unknown disease. It grabbed the audience by the shoulders and shook them, screaming into its face, "why are you letting this happen to us? Why is no one helping us?"

The one thing that defines Kramer's play, as well as Kramer himself, is anger. And it was in no small part to that anger that people were shaken from their complacency and began actively fighting for a cure, one that Reagan would eventually acknowledge (though, as the film notes in its postscript, his proposed 1986 budget actually cut funding for AIDS research) and, over time, has increased HIV prevention awareness and created better treatments. Even if the US government wasn't going to act on the epidemic until straight, white men were being infected (a rant for another time), Kramer and his play were a crucial spark to igniting that revolution.

So why, in the year 2014, make a film version of The Normal Heart? Of course, a major factor is likely the successful Broadway staging of the play in 2011. But even if the film is flawed, this story - and especially this anger - is still absolutely vital today, and begs to be heard.

More after the jump.

For the uninitiated, The Normal Heart focuses on Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), a thinly-veiled version of Kramer. Ned is a writer whose friends, beginning with Craig (Jonathan Groff), begin dying of a mysterious illness. In 1981, Ned is already a polemic figure in the gay community for his sex-negative writings, and the idea that this new illness could be sexually-transmitted only further divides him within the community. He teams up with others - Bruce (Taylor Kitsch), Mickey (Joe Mantello, who played Ned in the 2011 Broadway revival), Tommy (Jim Parsons), his lover Felix (Matt Bomer), and polio stricken Dr. Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts), aka "Dr. Death" - to begin spreading the word about the illness and raise awareness for a cure.

When Glee and American Horror Story co-creator Ryan Murphy was announced as the film's director, he seemed like he could either be the perfect match for this material or a complete disaster. In many ways, he's both. To his credit, this is the best film Murphy has made to date, topping the wild tonal shifts of Running With Scissors (2006) and the saccharine life-affirmations of Eat, Pray, Love (2010). Yet for someone prone to such wild flights of fancy in his television work, his direction of The Normal Heart is remarkably restrained. There are certain sequences - particularly the opening scene at Fire Island - that could have used more of his whiplash-inducing visual flair, especially since this is when Craig first becomes ill. Murphy also attempts what many cinematic adaptations of plays do in "opening up" the story, with more outdoor locations and scene changes. The problem with this strategy is that by moving the action out of doctors' offices, grimly-lit offices, and cramped apartments, the film loses the claustrophobic feel of the play, where every space feels like it's shrinking as the metaphorical noose tightens around the characters.

That being said, Murphy finds some ways around this problem. Namely, he films many scenes - especially ones with outraged monologues - in extreme close-up, narrowing the visual space down to just a few characters, if even that. It's wise move that, if it removes some of the urgency of the play, actually increases the power of these speeches. By being filmed so tightly and aired on television, the film essentially eliminates the proscenium arch - the fourth wall - of the play. Seeing the play on stage, the power of what's being said gets to the audience, but there's still a comfortable distance between them and the players - the audience can take comfort in knowing this is "just a story." Murphy blasts that away, and now the characters aren't just launching into righteously-enraged speeches - they're directly addressing those speeches to the viewer. As a result, it actually becomes more powerful through being more confrontational, and Kramer's writing flourishes as a result.

Of course, the terrific cast also gives much of those speeches their power. Ruffalo does typically great work, making great use of his rougher edges to lend extra abrasiveness to Ned while never making him overly-smug. Kitsch turns in his best performance since hanging up his helmet as Tim Riggins on Friday Night Lights, playing the GMHC president who prefers gentler tactics over Ned's rampage. He never makes the character unlikable, but rather one who's not ready to directly confront a largely-homophobic society. Parsons steals nearly every scene he's in as the self-described "Southern bitch" who's barely holding everyone together, and Roberts sinks her teeth into playing a woman filled with seething angry finally letting it explode. Alfred Molina, as Ned's lawyer brother, does great work as a character who's mostly there to represent the worst kind of ally: the ones who will pledge verbal support when its convenient, but won't act when given the chance. If anyone's underserved, it's Bomer; Felix is never given much depth beyond "Ned's lover" and "sick and dying," and though Bomer does admirable work, it's not enough to make a under-formed character work.

Even in 2014, when medical advancements have edged us ever-closer to a cure for HIV/AIDS and same-sex marriage is legal in over a third of the United States, The Normal Heart remains a rare film in terms of tackling gay issues. It's one of few major films to cast openly-gay actors as gay characters. It's one of even fewer films about the AIDS epidemic to be set in the early days of the crisis (for comparison's sake, even Angels in America and Rent begin after 1985). And it's one of the very rare mainstream films - as much as HBO is "mainstream" - to be told exclusively from the perspective of gay characters, without any straight "audience surrogate" a la Philadelphia or a straight, infected main character as in Dallas Buyers Club. That lends it even greater importance than the source material gave it. But that's the point: there's still so much more to be done. The Normal Heart, though a little flawed in its execution, is a apoplectic reminder that it's not time for the "mission accomplished" banner yet. People are still dying needlessly, and we've been complacent to just avert our gaze. To paraphrase The Dark Knight, it may not be the cinematic treatment of this play that we deserve, but it's the one we desperately need. A-

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