Directed by: Ryan Murphy.
Starring: Larry Kramer based on his play.
Starring: Mark Ruffalo (Ned Weeks), Matt Bomer (Felix Turner), Taylor Kitsch (Bruce Niles), Joe Mantello (Mickey Marcus), Jim Parsons (Tommy Boatwright), Julia Roberts (Dr. Emma Brookner), Alfred Molina (Ben Weeks), Jonathan Groff (Craig), BD Wong (Buzzy), Corey Stoll (John Bruno ).
Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart debuted on stage way back in 1985 – and Ryan Murphy’s film version of the play feels very much like something written in 1985. I imagine when the play debuted 30 years ago, it seemed daring and revolutionary – but all these years later, it feels very dated. Murphy also tries very hard to not make the film feel stage bound – starting with a long tracking shot early in the film that aspires to be like the opening shot of Boogie Nights or the entrance into the nightclub from GoodFellas – but doesn’t rise to that level. What saves the movie is the impassioned performances by the cast – all of whom handle the dialogue, and often long, at times awkward monologues, very well. The Normal Heart may feel hopelessly dated in many ways – but that doesn’t mean it has lost all its power to move you.
The movie opens in 1981, when no one knew what AIDS was. A doctor in New York, Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts) is seeing an increasing number of cases in gay men of some new virus that destroys the body’s immune system, and kills its victims quickly. No one will listen to her that there is something real, scary and disturbing going on. Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo) is a writer (based on Kramer himself) who is famous in the gay community – and along with a small, but ever growing – number of gay men form an organization to raise money and awareness to help fight what they at first call “Gay cancer”. They are met with arguments from the gay community – who do not want to believe it – and indifference from all level of governments, who do not much seem to care that gay men are dying in increasing numbers. Over the next few years, the group continues to try, and continue to get blocked – leading them all to get frustrated, and Weeks to become angry. Because he’s well known, he is invited to be on TV often – and isn’t above saying incendiary things to draw attention. To him the only way to get action is to get attention.
Throughout the course of the movie, almost all the major characters get to deliver an impassioned monologue where they express their fear, their anger and their frustration with the lack of action going into studying and curing this new disease. These are the kind of monologues that work on stage, but don’t work as well on screen. But the performances by Ruffalo, Matt Bomer, as his lover, Joe Mantello, as an older activist, Jim Parsons, as an uptight worker make many of these monologues work. Also effective is Alfred Molina, as Weeks’ older brother, who is gradually won over by his brother’s passion into accepting him as an equal. Less effective is Taylor Kitsch as the President of the group – who doesn’t seem fully invested in the character, and Roberts who is saddled with a nearly impossible role to begin with.
The film shows the age of its play it’s based in many ways. It’s kind of like watching a film like Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) about anti-Semitism or any of the 1960s movies about racism (like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?) through the eyes of today’s audience. At one point, they may have seen daring – but now, they seem dated. Anyone writing a play about gay men and AIDS today, wouldn’t need to beat you over the head with its righteous anger, its call for action and equality the way The Normal Heart does. Back in 1985, this was in many ways needed. But in 2014, it seems like a relic from the time it was written.
The cast and Murphy sell it though for the most part, and much of Kramer’s writing, as obvious as it is, still strikes a chord. The film is not as good as the recent documentary How to Survive a Plague, made up of archival footage from the time period (and has quite a lot of the real Kramer in it). It’s still a decent film, even if it feels like it was made a couple decades after it was really needed.