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Review: HBO’s ‘The Normal Heart’ Starring Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts, Taylor Kitsch, Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons & More

Review: HBO's 'The Normal Heart' Starring Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts, Taylor Kitsch, Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons & More

First staged off Broadway in 1985, Larry Kramer‘s acclaimed play “The Normal Heart” is undoubtedly a product of its time. Written and performed during the early stages of the 1980s AIDS crisis, a period which saw the gay community gripped by fear of the emerging disease, and ravaged by a shocking death toll, Kramer’s work is searing indictment of governmental indifference and those who refused to fight unreservedly to get the necessary resources and funding to foster support groups and research. Kramer’s play was also autobiographical, drawing on real-life people as inspiration for the characters, with the end product something as personal as it was polemical. More than 25 years later, “The Normal Heart” was revived on Broadway in 2011, and now it comes to HBO in a star-studded movie adaptation, with an aspiration towards the same fury the material evoked decades ago. But unfortunately, that passion oddly leaves the movie feeling a bit out of time in 2014.

For better or worse, there is nothing subtle about “The Normal Heart.” Within the film’s first fifteen minutes, a young gay man collapses mysteriously on a beach and later dies, and writer Ned Weekes (Mark Ruffalo) vows to start a health organization to inform the gay community in New York City of what’s happening, while helping to find a cure for what is later informally called the “gay cancer.” And soon, he has assembled a loose group of allies: Felix Turner (Matt Bomer), a young New York Times reporter that Ned presses hard to get someone in the newsroom to write a story about the disease, and who later becomes his lover; the closeted Bruce Niles (Taylor Kitsch) who becomes the photogenic, non-threatening head of the group; Dr. Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts), a wheelchair-bound doctor who seems to be the only one in the medical field taking the virus seriously; and Tommy Boatwright (Jim Parsons), who keeps the organizational wheels moving. But despite their common goal, it isn’t an easy meeting of the minds. 

By far, Ned is the most outspoken, angry and unrestrained of the group — but also the most willing to put himself and his reputation on the line. He openly accuses the government, at both the local and national level, of willfully ignoring the epidemic that is quickly infecting and killing gay men. But he also brooks no sympathy for those within the community who are reticent about coming out, speaking up and fighting with all they have to get anyone and everyone to pay attention to this disease that is slowly wiping out an entire generation of young men. And it’s this position that makes him a controversial figure both inside and outside the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and this is where the drama of the film mostly revolves around, mostly to its detriment.

There is a fine line between dramatically urgent and insistently didactic, and director Ryan Murphy more often falls into the latter than the former, which can make “The Normal Heart” exhausting but not always involving viewing. It seems that every twenty minutes, the script and movie needs to remind audiences of the vital importance of GMHC’s mission, often delivered via an impassioned monologue by Ned. And while this was necessary and likely undoubtedly powerful when Kramer’s play was first performed nearly thirty years ago in the midst of what’s referred to as a “plague,” the strident tone becomes rather flat as “The Normal Heart” wears on. And that’s not to diminish the contemporary importance of continued vigilance in terms of education and research—as the end credits make clear, the numbers surrounding HIV/AIDS are still staggering—however nuance is often more narratively compelling than undiluted melodrama. And so, “The Normal Heart” finds itself in a tricky position, presenting a topic that needs all the awareness it can get, but often making that message difficult to receive just by the nature of the rather singular approach.

But Murphy is lucky in attracting such a high profile cast, because they often bring texture to “The Normal Heart,” even when it isn’t always there. Unsurprisingly, Ruffalo is in fine form and manages a handful of moving scenes, even if the movie around him is often racing from one death or media incident to another. One moving showdown in particular, between Ned and his wealthy, straight, older brother Ben (Alfred Molina) might as well be cut right now by HBO for Emmy consideration. It’s the highlight of the film, and cuts right to the core of what it meant to be gay for many people in ’80s—accepted for who you are, but still not seen or treated as a complete, equal person. Roberts also makes the most of her tough love doctor, while Bomer gets to show some range, and Kitsch, despite his blockbuster flops, proves he’s still got some talent waiting to be given the right vehicle. Oddly, it’s Parsons—who starred in the 2011 stage revival—who comes off the worst. Partly, this is due to the material which doesn’t give his character much to work with, and it’s also due to his “Big Bang Theory” super nerd persona, which he doesn’t quite shake, making it difficult to understand his character’s curious lack of emotion. Tommy is often the earliest to find who the latest person is in the gay community who has died, and he keeps their Rolodex cards as a running inventory of those who been lost to the disease, and yet he never sheds a tear and always seems at a distance from the events around him. Even a eulogy given by Tommy, meant to be a testimony to the depth of loss being felt by the community, feels curiously flippant.

Sprawling over two hours long, “The Normal Heart” never really earns that length. The second half of the movie becomes split between something resembling an episodic (and repetitive) procedural, as the GMHC continues to make headway politically and publicly, and a chronicle of Ned’s own personal crisis as he begins to watch Felix struggle with the infection. Murphy tries to handle both with equal weight, but it’s ultimately the former plot thread that gets shortchanged, with the steps of success GMHC makes of fast-forwarded or simply jumped right into narratively. At one moment, they’re struggling to find office space, and the next, they have a brimming call centre. But at the very least, the relationship between Ned and Felix is touching, and nicely played by Ruffalo and Bomer, who always keep the portrayal dignified when it could so easily swing to mawkish.

Mounted with sincerity and a clear determination to capture the furious heat of the source material, “The Normal Heart” is a vexing viewing experience. Murphy turns up the anger throughout the drama, but it frequently fails to register, except in very intermittent moments. The drama takes a clear stand, but in doing so, renders many of the characters into one-dimensional figures. And while the the cast manages to shape their roles into three dimensions from time to time, they are still often left behind by a directorial approach that places tone ahead of texture. The heart beats strong in the movie from the very real crisis that redefined gay life in New York City during the 1980s, but it often explains the feelings of loss, fear and despair, without relaying them through characterization. By the time the film’s credits roll, and the story has spanned a few years, we know the anger of situation all to well, but are left to wonder about what happens once that fades, and the complex rush of other emotions come racing in. [C]

“The Normal Heart” airs on HBO on May 25th at 9 p.m.

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