The Normal Heart (2014)

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Directed by Ryan Murphy
Written by Larry Kramer

Rated R

Mark Ruffalo as Ned Weeks
Taylor Kitsch as Bruce Niles
Julia Roberts as Dr. Emma Brookner
Jim Parsons as Tommy Boatright
Matt Bomer as Felix Turner
Joe Mantello as Mickey Marcus
Alfred Molina as Ben Weeks
B.D. Wong as Buzzy
Jonathan Groff as Craig Donner

The Gay Rights Movement has been called a modern-day civil rights movement. These movements are always politically charged, and perhaps the Gay Rights agenda is more visible than ever. There is a sitting President of the United States, who claims to be on board with the movement, furthering the Gay Cause more than other president in history. Is he really? We’ll never truly know. President Obama advocated for Gay Marriage … but not until his re-election chances were threatened in 2012. Back in the early 1980s, an argument could be made that then-President Ronald Reagan had no intention of acknowledging gays in this country. That is, until, he had no choice.

The defining moment was, of course, the tragic and widespread panic of an epidemic, which eventually became known as AIDS. The Normal Heart is a well-acted, affecting, and maddeningly flawed adaptation of Larry Kramer’s celebrated 1985 play. The play, and this film adaptation, are about a hot-buttoned as it gets. The film is far from perfect, but it is thought provoking and tremendously moving. It’s directed by Ryan Murphy, who is currently one of television’s golden boys. He’s the man behind the once-buzzy Glee (which is now embarrassingly past its prime, limping into a shortened final season). His 2012-2013 NBC sitcom The New Normal was funny but wildly uneven, like Glee (it also starred Ellen Barkin, who won a 2011 Tony for Julia Roberts’ role in the film version of The Normal Heart). However, Murphy’s American Horror Story is remarkably well-made, always interesting, and one of the best-acted series on television. All that being said, this film is a success for Murphy. It’s well-directed and executed in the tradition of the best HBO films. Like Murphy’s television series, The Normal Heart is uneven but not boring.

The story begins in 1981, on New York’s Fire Island, that infamous gay-boy hot spot for partying and uninhibited sex. Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo) is an openly gay writer from New York City, and his visit on Fire Island is dampened when one of his friends, Craig (Jonathan Groff of HBO’s gay-themed dramedy Looking), collapses, inexplicably ill.

Soon, many men are falling prey to a new disease, dubbed cancer, initially, then GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency), and finally AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). Ned begins losing friends to the disease, and a visit to Dr. Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts) reveals the doctor is encountering patients with compromised immune systems. Dr. Brookner asserts the patients are predominantly gay men, and she suggest they stop having sex until doctors discover what is causing this fatal ailment. Of course, gay men balk at the suggestion, but Dr. Brookner is convinced her studies are correct, and Ned reluctantly agrees.

He seeks the media prowess of gay New York Times reporter Felix Turner (Matt Bomer), and the two men develop a romantic relationship. Meanwhile, Ned and some friends, including handsome Bruce Niles (Taylor Kitsch, very effective in an underappreciated performance), sweet Southerner Tommy (JIm Parsons), and seen-it-all older Mickey Marcus (Joe Mantello, who played Ned in the Broadway run) begin GMHC (Gay Men’s Health Crisis). Ned is well-meaning but abrasive, and his off-putting anger and tantrums to win political support are undercut -- then aggravated -- when Felix reveals a Kaposi’s Sarcoma lesion, indicating he is dying of the disease.

Ned’s character is aligned with Ruffalo’s similar performance. Ruffalo is a great actor, and he’s not necessarily miscast here; I think he’s playing the performance as it was written by Kramer. It captures the time and resistance of the 1980s, when it took President Reagan several years to verbally acknowledge AIDS. History shows liberals disliked Reagan nearly as much as conservatives dislike Obama. In the subsequent years since his presidency, Reagan’s legacy has improved. Will Obama’s legacy reap similar results in 30 years or so? Who knows. Yes, it’s a statement rather than a question. The Normal Heart prompted me to consider such ideas. Can we really go back to the early 1980s and slam people for behaving shamefully about things for which they were uneducated? In the age of the Internet, social media, and a world where there’s an overwhelming influx of information, is it even applicable to make such comparisons? Ned seemed ahead of his time in many ways, and so frustratingly obtuse and stubborn, it’s little wonder he became such a polarizing figure.

Yes, The Normal Heart succeeds in making Ned the hero of the story, mostly. I guess it’s a testament to Kramer’s writing, Murphy’s direction, and much of Ruffalo’s performance. I didn’t buy him as a gay man. He looked like a straight actor, diving deep to deliver a credible dramatic performance as a gay person. Ned made me think, even if Ruffalo did not disappear into the character. Perhaps I would have considered his star power as distracting, had Julia Roberts not delivered one of her best career performances (immediately following what may be her best work, last year’s August: Osage County). As is the case in many dramatic plays, there is a Big Scene, destined to be The One where awards are born (indeed, Roberts was nominated for an Emmy, losing to Kathy Bates, ironically, for American Horror Story); but all of Roberts’ scene are impactful, and her performance is one of skilled conviction and verve.

Six actors from The Normal Heart won Emmy nominations; none of them won. Alfred Molina was touching as Ned’s older attorney brother, Ben; and Bomer (whose casting should prove to the uninitiated that pretty young studs are susceptible to HIV as well) has some powerful moments as the AIDS-afflicted Felix. Awards pundits predicted he’d win the Emmy; after all, he shed a reported 40 pounds to show how AIDS is debilitating. He didn’t win, and I think it’s because his Big Death Scenes, while poignant and worth every tear, weren’t consistent with the scenes when he wasn’t yet dying. Maybe the screenplay should have added an opera for Bomer to perform (one of the clichéd, cringe-worthy moments in another flawed AIDS film, 1993’s wildly overrated Philadelphia).

Mantello’s Big Scene is well-played, as he breaks down about his frustration with his feeling of helplessness and inability to help, not to mention with Ned’s tactics for action -- but the scene falls short. It should have been broken up, especially in a film adaptation, to maintain the power of the original script. Mantello does an admirable job here, but Murphy should have directed this with more precision. Mantello’s bright, shining moment was lost. Arguably the film’s best performance is delivered by The Big Bang Theory phenom Jim Parsons. His Tommy is relatable, human, kind, nurturing, angry; I loved Parsons in this film. It’s a revelatory performance, and I would have applauded if he had won his second Emmy of the evening (of course, he had just won a fourth Emmy for his work on Big Bang).

The end of this story has always felt anticlimactic, and I guess it should. The war on AIDS is far from over. Medications have come so far in the 30 or more years since the crisis became a global epidemic. But now, careers in medicine are based on the treatment of HIV, making the world go round. I suspect if the fictionalized version of Ned Weeks were young and full of reckless passion in 2014, he’d be railing against The System for withholding the cure that is most surely in existence, if not available.

I think gays will love this movie, cling to the emotional resonance of the Big Moments depicted in the film, and revert to their normal lives. Conservatives may turn away, perhaps even considering that AIDS is a punishment from God or some other Higher Power for “sins” against morality. Politically correct liberals will verbalize their support, renounce the government for forsaking the gays, and returns to their cozy lives of posting their support via social media, without ever truly having it been challenged. Last, I think humans, who understand the devastation and suffering of loved ones of this terrible disease, will ponder the history, consider the present, and press toward a hopeful future, deeply invested to helping the tragedy of HIV and AIDS come to an end. If nothing else, The Normal Heart is a tried and true success for triggering these thoughts, emotions, and ideas.

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