The sad truth in 2014 is that we all know what an AIDS movie looks like. We know the beats and the broad strokes. We've become eagle-eyed about spotting that first KS lesion on the beautiful, doomed Hollywood actor. We brace ourselves for stories of grieving loved ones and baffled doctors and an indifferent government. History doesn't change, and the acceptance of that is a complacency of a sort. Taking a flamethrower to complacency is kind of Larry Kramer's thing, and Ryan Murphy manages to make a film out of Kramer's play The Normal Heart that both retains Kramer's fury and nods to the history.
The Normal Heart, premiering on HBO this Sunday night, instead of your usual lineup of Game of Thrones, Veep, and that third show about white nerds.
The Writer and Director
Larry Kramer is adapting his own play, first produced in 1985 and whose 2011 Broadway incarnation won a bunch of Tony Awards, including one for Ellen Barkin (in the role that went to Julia Roberts in this movie), leading to a pop culture visibility spike for Barkin that led to her getting cast in The New Normal, a Nene Leakes vehicle created by one Ryan Murphy, director of The Normal Heart.
The push-pull of a Murphy-Kramer pairing is one that's had critics — gay and straight alike, but mostly the gay ones — wringing their hands for months. Kramer is largely respected, often revered, in the gay community for his uncompromising activism, while Murphy is generally acknowledged to be an exploitive, tacky purveyor of trash (and that's from people who like American Horror Story). The consensus fretting over whether Murphy would ultimately ruin Kramer's play has dominated most discussion of the film during production.
The story is "fictionalized" insofar as Kramer's largely autobiographical tale changes the names of the people involved. Kramer's stand-in for himself is Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), whose feelings of alienation from the pretty, hedonistic Fire Island-y culture of post-Stonewall gay New York end up amplified when a terrifying "gay cancer" begins to cut a wide swath through his community. This thing moves fast, and it's friends and familiar faces who are dropping like flies. The story becomes one of desperate activism, wherein the very word "activism" doesn't feel accurate. This is emergency response, a triage setting itself up in shitty offices and crowded apartments and nightmarish hospital wings. Weeks' contemporaries — the most prominent of which are played by Taylor Kitsch, Jim Parsons (reprising his stage role), and Joe Mantello (who played Weeks in the Broadway production) — take turns trying to handle him. Ned's rage is pure, but his lack of concern for the hard-won sexual liberation of his community makes him incredibly unpopular. Kitsch's character, Bruce, is a closeted golden boy, and the friendship and simultaneous resentments between Bruce and Ned are thematically rich for a community that even today struggles with normativity-vs-revolution, though they might have played better with a different actor in the Bruce role. Kitsch is a talented actor, but his limitations are more apparent the farther he gets from Friday Night Lights.
The only other person whose anger and interpersonal thorniness match Ned's is Dr. Emma Brookner, played with purposeful stiffness by Julia Roberts (though she does get one scene to smile in; you can keep that megawatt grin at bay for only so long). Together, they make for a righteous pair, stomping through hospital wards where AIDS patients have been herded like animals and treated like prisoners. They go after the city of New York, Ned taking every opportunity to slam closeted mayor Ed Koch; they go after the Reagan administration; they go after the medical establishment. The fictionalized Weeks helps found the very real Gay Men's Health Crisis, and when Ned is trumped out of that group for being impossible to corral, he's well on his way to founding Kramer's other great legacy, ACT UP.
The American Horror Story
If you're going by the first 20 minutes or so, you might think you're in for a troublesome production. Murphy's staging of an early Fire Island back party that ends with Jonathan Groff's foreboding collapse has a high degree of melodrama, like he's trying to goose what is self-evidently horrifying. Murphy's career hasn't been built on restraint, ever, and the worry is that AIDS will be just another monster in the closet like he's dealt with on his horror series. But as the film unfolds and begins to take the character of Ned Weeks, there are moments where Murphy and Kramer's sensibilities converge in rather energizing ways. After all, it's not like Larry Kramer's career has been built on restraint either. That sense that we've seen AIDS movies before and know their familiar beats gets upended more than a few times. The trips to the hospital are the most bracing, as we see what are barely glorified prison wards, where dehumanized patients are treated at arm's length by hazmat-suit-wearing heath professionals. Bodies are left to writhe and rave and die and be dumped out the back door. Murphy knows his task is to make the world of the movie match the rage in Kramer's heart, and in these scenes, he succeeds.
Murphy's always been talented at aesthetics. Here, he knows enough to hand over the tasks of recognizable human emotion to Kramer and his actors. But he makes several smart choices along the way, even if they are very Murphian at heart. Casting the otherworldly attractive Matt Bomer as Ned's great love Felix is a classic Murphy move. But he manages to find the angriest angle on even this. His camera lingers on Bomer's perfect face in the early going, partially so we fall for it just as Ned is. And then we settle in to watch Bomer deteriorate over time, with all the violence and cruelty that comes with it.
As Ned Weeks, Mark Ruffalo is as responsible for the success or failure of the movie as Murphy or Kramer; he's the gravitational force at the center, and his anger feels real and justified and lived-in. Ruffalo's always been an empathetic actor, and he handles Ned's contradictions well. He imbues Ned with an awkward sensitivity that never feels forced — Michael Douglas can rest easy knowing Ruffalo does no mincing here — but also never feels scared to be soft. He sells Ned's sadnesses and shames and fears so well that those frequent moments of anger feel all the more real and justified and necessary. His scenes with Alfred Molina, who plays Ned's lawyer brother, are more than just screaming matches. They're vital catharses.
The supporting cast are all a shade or two dimmer, by design. Parsons shows some interesting dimensions as the cracks in his chipper-young-thing veneer start to show. Kitsch, as I said, feels overmatched and is the only real weak spot. It's great to see Mantello get his one big scene, a firebrand monologue that perfectly distills the intra-community struggles and the terrifying sense of how little they knew of the disease that characterized the time. It feels far less stagey than the monologue Roberts has to recite in front of the medical board. It's a barn-burner in the play, when Emma is hollering into the void of the audience, but it doesn't (can't?) retain that kind of power in a film setting. Roberts herself is probably too starry an actor for the role, raising audience expectations in a way that detracts rather than contributes.
A lot of the small roles feel like nods to the history of AIDS movies/TV/plays, whether they're intentional or not. Stephen Spinella will make some viewers recall Angels in America. B.D. Wong might trigger thoughts of And the Band Played On. Also, not for nothing, but it is undeniably encouraging to see this story told with so many out gay actors, from Bomer to Parsons to Groff to Denis O'Hare, to Mantello and Spinella and Wong. It's a slippery slope if you start to mandate that gay characters have to be played by gay actors, and certainly Ruffalo's heterosexuality is not impeding his dynamite performance here. But there's something prideful in the idea that this crucial piece of history is being told by its descendants. Larry Kramer and the children of his revolution.