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Monday
May262014

Review: The Normal Heart

This review was originally published in Nathaniel's column at Towleroad

Mark Ruffalo as Ned Weeks (aka Larry Kramer) recreating a famous televised interview in "The Normal Heart"It's time for that other most-famous AIDS play to have its moment in the television sun. Larry Kramer's "THE NORMAL HEART," arrived Off Broadway in 1985, a half decade or so before Tony Kushner's long since canonized "Angels in America," but it's taken a longer and more circuitous route to mainstream fame. It's HBO to the rescue again with a television adaptation, which, as with the fate of Angels, came on the heels of a long gestating but never-meant-to-be movie version. (Barbra Streisand tried for years to mount a film version of The Normal Heart giving herself the plum role of Emma Brookner a.k.a. 'Doctor Death')

Though it rarely does Kramer's 'Heart' any favors to compare it to the later masterwork, it's hard not to. They're linked in time structure, setting, historical record, and now in HBO incarnations. Think of The Normal Heart as Angels in America's angrier cruder earth-bound cousin. It doesn't bother with symbolism, poetry or spirituality - whether that's through lack of ability, desire, or bilious rejection of the escapist side of the fantastical who can say? Instead, it finds its power in fragile bodies and righteous rage in the face of mundane defeats and every day humiliations.

Which is why it's a little surprising at first to begin with the elemental: the open air, the sun and a glide over the water (supertitle: "1981") as we head to Fire Island...

We're on a ferry with Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo as Larry Kramer's surrogate protagonist) and his friends. Most notably in these early scenes, that's All American blonde beauty Bruce (Taylor Kitsch) and his boyfriend Craig (Jonathan Groff). We even get a god's eye view or two when Craig collapses on the beach, violently ill for reasons none of the friends can initially fathom but for that "gay cancer" we see Ned reading about.

The Fire Island intro is surely an attempt to 'open the play up' which often happens when filmmakers bring famous plays to the screen but it works against the movie at first, since the material collects it power through its avalanche of claustrophobic scenes of men fighting in tiny rooms, apartments, offices and hospitals. Movies are often better at showing then telling, but in this case, let them tell. The Normal Heart's power is not in its grand vision but in its testament. Its power comes from the shrinking suffocation of a tight knit community. To Kramer's credit, The Normal Heart shows both the good and the ugly of communities in crisis who are just as likely to turn on as support each other. We see both and simultaneously, too --that's just how people are.

Taylor Kitsch as the closeted but well-meaning Bruce in "The Normal Heart"

One of the most effective threads in The Normal Heart is the confusion and betrayal the characters feel and argue about regarding their own sexual behavior. The very thing that they had to claim for themselves in an unfriendly society and the very thing that liberated them (sex) they're suddenly told may destroy them. 

As a time capsule and polemic, The Normal Heart is absolutely essential, and as play, at least, it is blisteringly angry. It's hard to imagine just how potent it must have felt in 1985 when people couldn't even bring themselves to say the word "AIDS" (as President Reagan wouldn't for years), but here was this stage play shouting it out over and over again. Time has not necessarily dulled its power. The recent revival on Broadway was so popular that it surely led to this movie. But as a television movie it's a somewhat mixed bag. It's oddly paced, for one, both rushed (montage!) and slow to build. Some scenes in the play felt like stacked weights falling heavily on top of one another, and it was just crushing to watch. One of the most volatile scenes, when Ned is fired by the Gay Men's Health Crisis, which he co-founded, should have the weight of the inevitable but because we've been distracted by the falling-in love sequences with Felix Turner (Matt Bomer, doing beautiful romantic work) it seems to come from out of the blue. Mark Ruffalo is great in that particular scene, and captures the obstinate charisma of the self-aggrandizing role  (Larry Kramer's play is, at least in part, about how awesome and loveably "difficult" Larry Kramer is!). But honestly I think Ruffalo pushes a bit to make it "gay"... something that Taylor Kitsch, for example, doesn't do. Kitsch doesn't absolutely destroy your heart like Lee Pace did on stage during Bruce's final horrific monologue about a dead lover but he's quite good. While we're on that topic of straight actors playing gay, can we congratulate this movie for actually casting gay actors in at least some of the gay roles. That shouldn't be so rare.

In one of The Normal Heart's best scenes, a complete nervous breakdown in motion occurs when Mickey (Joe Mantello, who played Ned Weeks on Broadway) lashes out at Ned before the celibate peacemaker Tommy intervenes. Jim Parsons, wonderfully reprising his Broadway role, gets one of the play's best, truest, funniest, and saddest lines when Tommy figures that they're all suffering from "Bereavement Overload". 

But, then, The Normal Heart  is always at its best when it completely loses its decorum and turns hysterical. Which is why Ryan Murphy, who we can all surely agree is prone to excess, seemed like either a dangerous choice or a special one in the director's chair. Turns out this is his most restrained outing but restraint is a really weird fit. The material stubbornly sparks back to life here and there anyway, as in the paper flinging monologue from "Doctor Death"  (Julia Roberts, low-key and grim throughout) when a government board won't fund her AIDS research or Ned's rants when he feels he's been disrespected (which is roughly all the time; he's a handful) and especially in Ned's ultimatums with his brother Ben (Alfred Molina is fine as the not-quite-evolved-enough sibling).

Still for all its uneveneness as a movie -- turns out it's hard to bottle lightning -- there's absolutely no denying the emotional and prescient force of its finale; an impromptu wedding that earns all the tears. Every drop.  As a time capsule and polemic, the play is nothing less than essential; a crude and angry screaming into the void, despairing that there's no one listening. Here, then, an irony and great justice. 29 years later, the voices might be quieter, but people continue to lean in and really hear them. 

* The Normal Heart premiered last night on HBO with encore presentations coming. You can also probably watch it right this second on HBOGO. Expect Emmy nominations as one of the last high profile shows out of the gate (the eligibility cut-off date is next Saturday so we'll discuss the Emmys then)

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Reader Comments (21)

Great review Nat! You are so right about the final scene, it truly did earn every single drop of my tears- n it sure was flowing! I also agree with Ruffalo, I didn't quite like him in the role. But everyone else in the movie is astounding- from Jim Parson's eye opening eulogy, to Joe Mantello's breakdown, to Julia Roberts' releasing years of frustration- it was a really good film!

May 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMiguel

Ryan Murphy is a remarkably unsubtle director, but then The Normal Heart is an often remarkably unsubtle play. So how did this end up feeling as muted as it did? I mean, the script still stings, but most of the bite of the recent stage production was missing for me this time around. I thought Ruffalo was tremendous, though. Bomer, too. For some reason though, this version just didn't feel as daring, angry, or urgent as the play usually feels for me. I still mostly liked it, though.

May 26, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

Also noted the point of that HBO has casted mostly gay actors. As far as I am concerned a large portion of the cast is gay (Parsons, Bomer, Groff, Mantello, O'Hare, Spinella, Wong). Which is great!

May 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJesper L

Saw this at a special screening in the Castro; hearing such an emotional response in the audience was quite a rare experience. Mantello's monolouge stayed with me. It could've gone either way, but was perfectly delivered.

May 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoel v

I have to wait until Saturday to see it! What did you think of Julia's performance?

May 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Agree especially on casting gay actors. It's cleary a bit of a problem for Ruffalo and it stands out even more next to Bomer and Parsons, who along with Roberts were the MVPs. Kitsch was great but now I'm curious if I would have preferred Pace. Nowhere near as good as Angels in America, but definitely worth seeing.

May 26, 2014 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

I have to echo what a lot of people are saying: I'm really glad so many openly gay actors were cast.

Not sure what Kitsch was doing in the movie, though. He was pretty awful, I thought, and I don't see a reason to replace Lee Pace unless either Pace as unavailable or Murphy didn't want to cast closeted gay actors (which, I have to say, I would respect).

To address Ruffalo pushing it: he's certainly playing "gayer" than, say, Kitsch (or even Bomer) is, but I think it was less him playing gay than it was him playing Larry Kramer. At least, that's what I assumed that voice was about.

May 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBaxter

A ton of emmy wins for this one, that's for sure

May 27, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercraver

Film was good but not great. Parts of it were better than the rest. I thought Julia's big monologue was amazing. Glad to see that Julia did her homework and she even tried to copy a polio victim's speech pattern. Her quieter moments worked too. Mark and Matt worked well together too.

May 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBML23

I felt longtime companion was a lot more powerful. Just my thoughts.

May 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJosh

@BML23 - "Glad to see that Julia did her homework and she even tried to copy a polio victim's speech pattern." Can you explain that more? I noticed she seemed to be taking breaths in the strangest of places, sometimes even in the middle of multisyllabic words ("hetero...sexuals"), and now am wondering if your comment explains this.

For the most part I thought Roberts was competent but I would've loved to see Ellen Barkin recreate her Tony-winning performance for the screen, something she'd be able to do with her years of screen experience.

Nat, I think you're criticizing the film for "opening up" in the beginning but I thought it worked really well. It planted the film in a specific time and place, showing us the open sexual freedom that Kramer would later be telling everyone to abandon out of safety. It gave us the parade that he would be raining on and showed us just what he was up against. And it made all the later, more claustrophobic scenes that much tighter, darker and more grim in comparison.

I was worried with Murphy at the helm but overall I thought the film worked. Those images of Ruffalo washing Bomer - wow. You can't underestimate the power of a mainstream American film (even on cable) showing what gay people did for each other out of love.

May 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

I am grateful to Larry Kramer.

May 27, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

Jim Parsons was so much better than I expected. Sure there were some flashes of Shelton here and there but I think he left the strongest impression on me after the movie was over, along with Bomer. Joe Mantello was terrific also. I usually hate Julia Roberts but she didn't piss me off, as she usually does, in this movie at all. Although I still would have preferred to see Barkin return to the role. I found Mark Ruffalo was very hit or miss but if I'm being honest, he was mostly terrible.

May 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJohn

I didn't see the play, so I have no comparison, but it was very moving experience, You're right Nathaniel - it's not a piece of art (like Angels in America), but for me almost everything worked here. Ruffalo was great, loved Bomer and Parsons (he surprised me the most) and Julia was just freaking fantastic.
There were also "not so great" moments, but I'm not gonna write about that.
Ultimately The Normal Heart is a very compelling and needed reminder for all of us.

May 27, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterpaulj

The Normal Heart has been a staple presence in my acting life for years. It's a go-to scene for young actors in schools and acting classes. I re read the play in excited anticipation for the film. I want to describe redeeming qualities of the film that I enjoyed, yet I can't. Maybe it's the adaptation itself that bothered me so. This romance aspect was very uneeded. The relationships of the activists should have been the focus. These scenes are theatrically iconic, and much of it was lost because it sadly lacked consistancy. Sure, one can argue it feels dated within itself, however if executed correctly it won't feel as such. One thing I truly appreciated was a movie version of the play. Recent stage to screen adaptations have missed the mark in creating a fresh prospective of its source material, therefore it becomes simply a play that has been filmed. The casting choices baffled me. Mark Ruffalo has been found out. He's no longer, for me, an actor of range. He's actually a one note performer and I didn't realize that until this dreadful performance. He was the weakest link of all and he's in nearly every scene. And what killed me is that he "played gay" to such an effected degree he was laughable. Joe Montello CLEARLY should have reprised his role as Ned. His fantastic interpretation of Mickey and that monologue should be studied. All actors in the film who were not gay and/or not associated with the Broadway production stuck out like sore thumbs besides Matt Boemer who was better than the movie he was in. Jim Parsons was sparkling, and Alfred Molina's role was cut, therefore he was underused which was a shame because the film could have used more of him. All in all, I found it to be weak, awkwardly fantastical, and hard to get through.

May 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTory Smith

The movie was beautiful and moving, it accomplished its purpose which is to remind us off the struggle these men and women faced just to be heard. I was born in the late eighties and never truly understood the stark reality that aids caused when it was first discovered.

May 29, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSakia Johnson

Haven't seen it yet, but in the matter of the movie not being as urgent or angry as the play, it hardly can, the screen will never beat the inmediacy of the stage...

May 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa

I agree 100% with Tory Smith. Thank you for your well articulated critique. I read good reviews of this production, but did not enjoy the viewing experience (except for Joe Mantello and Jim Parsons) at all. I wish I had seen the play.

June 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSylvia Vasquez

So I saw the movie, it premiered this weekend in Latin America... I'm still shaking, it's not an easy movie to watch, but I expected that from Ryan Murphy, all of the performances were superb, but what moved me, touched me the most was the beautiful love story between Ned and Felix. About damn time we get to see a beautiful, sexy, romantic and powerful love story between two men... Mark Ruffalo was AMAZING, but Matt Bomer was breathtaking, he broke my heart, he swept me off my feet, made me fall in love with him and broke my heart in a million pieces as he started to waste. I've heard everything from Jim Parsons beautifully sad eulogy to Joe Mantello's despair ridden monologue and I agree with all of them, Taylor Kitsch was a pleasent surprise to me (I've never seen Friday Night Lights) he was fearless! By the time we got to the wedding I was spent... But the scene that touched me the most was the last scene, the dance at Yale and Ned Weeks sitting in a corner heartbroken and and desperately missing his Felix... That's the scene I can't get over!

June 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa

Tory Smith, I don't know what makes you so upset about this piece, but what you've written is without merit.

June 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBlaiser

@Blaiser. I'm not sure if what I said is or isn't without merit. It was what I honestly thought at the time. I was fustrated when I was watching the picture because of selfish high expectations.However, I find Ryan Murphy to be quite a force in the industry, and I'm especially appreciate the man and his great great work. He directed this film in a bold fashion with thought and precision. Various casting choices and attention more on the struggle than the love story would have made the film 's subject matter more fluid and raised the stakes.

August 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTory Smith

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