It is a difficult task to write about something so well intended and earnest as HBO’s The Normal Heart. It’s clear that the filmmakers and cast are wholly invested in this story and its broader social implications, and those intentions should (and will) be showered with rewards. But if I’m being honest, it is an undeniable flaw of the film that director Ryan Murphy, whose power in Hollywood brought this long-gestating property to fruition after many aborted attempts, just isn’t strong enough of a director to give this material the steady guiding hand it requires.
Based on his 1985 play, Larry Kramer’s script provides a first-hand account of the early days of the “gay cancer,” later known as HIV/AIDS. He layers the story with the varied perspectives that both combatted and assisted the disease in its proliferation through the gay lifestyle. Early scenes overtly suggest that government health officials were as culpable as the gay men who refused to stop having unprotected sex in the face of this horrible unknown disease.
Kramer’s outrage is funneled into the semi-autobiographical character of Ned Weeks, a controversial gay writer who alienated gay men with his aggressive tactics. As played by Mark Ruffalo, Weeks is a lightening rod for controversy, demanding all gay men (closeted or not) to take up arms and express their outrage. And there are many, many, many scenes of outrage. Fortunately, Ruffalo is a brilliant actor delivering what has to be his best performance to date. He excels at indignation and digs deeply into the character. After last year’s Michael Douglas/Matt Damon awards season debacle, I refuse to call Ruffalo’s performance “brave,” but he exposes himself emotionally in ways not many actors could.
It is the quieter moments that show Ruffalo’s real brilliance in the role. One quick moment early in the film comes to mind as Ruffalo’s character Weeks joins an out-and-proud party on Fire Island, one that was apparently the last of its kind in the post AIDS era. After stepping off the boat, he unbuttons his shirt in an attempt to relax. Three seconds later in a throwaway moment, the out-and-proud atmosphere of the party causes him to button up again. It’s a brief moment, but it tells us everything we need to know about Weeks. There is an interesting contradiction at play in a gay character that is at once deeply uncomfortable with himself and his sexuality and still becomes the spokesperson for the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Unfortunately, it’s not a contradiction the film has time to fully explore with such a stacked deck of characters. The film’s large cast is full of talented actors fighting for relevance in the crowded proceedings. Oddly, given Murphy’s tendencies to drag out plots well beyond their welcome in other efforts (see: Glee), The Normal Heart is the one thing he’s directed that would have benefitted from extended screen time. These are all interesting characters with interesting stories to tell shoved into a two-hour running time.
Julia Roberts gives an angry, controlled performance as Polio-suffering Dr. Emma Brookner, one of the first doctors to see the brutality of the disease. Roberts’s performance initially felt too one-note as she seems to overly rely on her penchant for seething anger developed over recent performances (something of a carry-over from August: Osage County), but the script affords her one scene in which she details the humiliation and isolation she experienced at the hands of her disease. Tired of burying her patients, she asks gay men to basically stop having sex until the disease is better understood, not an unrealistic expectation coming from someone who had been physically and sexually isolated much of her life. She fought. She resisted. Why can’t they?
Matt Bomer also shines as Felix Turner, a style reporter for the New York Times who falls in love with Ruffalo’s Weeks. Bomer’s natural charm and charisma as an actor carry him through the initial scenes, but, as his character develops the virus, Bomer physically transforms into a haunted shell of a man staring down death. He doesn’t have many showboating scenes, but his is a quiet, nuanced performance that is miraculously maintained through the crowded proceedings.
Another star performer, surprisingly so to me, is Jim Parsons. I have never been a fan of his work on The Big Bang Theory, but here, he lives and breathes the character of Tommy Boatwright. Parsons mostly provides quiet dignity, breaking down touchingly in a beautifully rendered eulogy.
Denis O’Hare and Alfred Molina also provide stellar support in minor roles. Only Taylor Kitsch of Friday Night Lights fame falls short in what should have been a meaty role as Bruce Niles, the president of Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) – an assistance organization Weeks/Kramer helped to found.
Given the impressive acting on display, you’d think the film would have registered more. This flaw I lay directly at the feet of Ryan Murphy, who clearly wants to deliver on the promise of Kramer’s material but ultimately undercuts it. The film is sloppily directed, lumbering from one scene to the next as if marking off items on an Important Points list. Historic exposition? Check. Touching, tragic death scene? Check. Check. Angry outburst? Check. Check. Check. Check. Instead of providing even seconds of additional screen time to allow these characters to breathe and grieve, he finds ways to flood the proceedings with agenda and overt displays of pathos, even managing to indulge in his noted love of horror in ill-advised ways. While Murphy’s greatest strength lies in his obvious rapport with actors, his unsteady directorial hand betrays the film’s potential as Kramer’s personal document on the era.
Still, I have a feeling that Murphy’s popularity in Hollywood (see: American Horror Story’s jaw-dropping success at the Emmys) coupled with an outpouring of affection and respect for the ailing Kramer will result in a bevvy of Emmy nominations and awards for all involved. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but The Normal Heart still suffers in comparison to Mike Nichols’s great Angels in America or even HBO’s early AIDS telepic And the Band Played On. Ultimately, I applaud Murphy’s ability to get the film made even if I feel he was the wrong person to make it.
The Normal Heart, much like Murphy’s other work, unnecessarily wears its heart openly on its sleeve where I would have preferred a more nuanced and subtle approach. The tragedy inherent within the material and from Kramer’s personal struggles delivers better than Murphy ever could. We don’t always need to be told so explicitly what to feel. We do have modern hearts and minds to interpret it all on our own.