May 25, 2014

THE SKED Review: “The Normal Heart”


THE NORMAL HEART:  Sunday 9PM on HBO – DVR Alert

When Larry Kramer’s just-barely-semi-autobiographical THE NORMAL HEART was first written and performed in 1985, it was as “ripped from the headlines” as any episode of Law & Order, a furious, mournful expose about the AIDS crisis as it was happening just outside the theater (and very possibly in the audience itself), and a raging attack on social and government forces (New York’s Mayor Koch, the New York Times, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and the Reagan administration among others) that weren’t doing enough to stop it.  Watching the new HBO film of the play, adapted by Kramer himself and directed by Ryan Murphy, is inevitably a different experience.  Although end-titles underscore that AIDS is hardly finished as a global scourge, The Normal Heart is now a period piece, appearing at a time when Dallas Buyers Club is just the latest AIDS-related film to enjoy moderate box office success and plenty of critical and awards-season acclaim.

If The Normal Heart isn’t revolutionary or incendiary any longer, what is it?  The accent in Murphy’s film is on a retelling of the history, and the human toll of the disease.  Kramer’s stand-in is Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), a writer who’s one of the first in the gay community to recognize that a grave threat has appeared, and an original organizer of the GMHC.  His colleagues include the closeted Bruce Niles (Taylor Kitsch), hospital administrator Tommy Boatwright (Jim Parsons, who won a Tony in the recent Broadway revival of the play), and city health worker Mickey Marcus (Joe Mantello, who played Ruffalo’s role in that revival), as well as polio-stricken doctor Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts).  In the midst of this, Ned begins the first truly serious romance of his life, with NY Times reporter Felix Turner (Matt Bomer), who is ultimately himself stricken with the disease.

The horrors of the early days of AIDS are vividly illustrated:  the terror that others felt at the sight of the afflicted, the petty and not-so-petty humiliations when health care workers wouldn’t bring food into the rooms of the sick, and when the bodies of the dead were loaded into trash bags and refused burial, the rapidly increasing speed of the epidemic, the refusal of local and federal government agencies to even acknowledge that something had to be done.  (The Normal Heart could usefully be viewed in conjunction with the documentary How To Survive a Plague, a superbly-made, comprehensive treatment of the same period.)

Ned is intended to be a passionate advocate but also an unbearable scold, not just abrasive but violently destructive to his own cause and relationships and, in the end, impossible for anyone to work with–his only defense being that he’s nearly always right.  (It appears to be a unanimously held opinion that all of this is true of Larry Kramer as well.)  In this, the casting of Ruffalo somewhat weakens the film.  It’s no fault of his performance, which is excellent from beginning to end and will no doubt have him on the short list for the Emmy and other awards in the months to come.  It’s just that Ruffalo invariably comes across as a basically reasonable guy, compassionate and thoughtful, and that’s still the case here even when Ned is being viciously rude and confrontational.  Put another way:  Ruffalo was brilliantly cast as Bruce Banner, but Ned Weeks is meant to be The Hulk.  That makes Ned easier to take for an audience, but unbalances the narrative to an extent.  It also doesn’t help that at one point or another, Kramer has given just about every other character a lengthy, furious oration about the crisis as well, which makes Ned sound not all that different from everyone else around him.  When Ned is finally fired by the GMHC, by way of a letter that denounces him in livid, violent terms, and which presumably is similar to the letter Kramer himself received when he was fired, it’s not clear why they’re quite so angry with him.  (One of the controversies in which Kramer was embroiled at the time, taking the position that gay men should reduce their promiscuity at a time when the contagiousness of AIDS was still unclear, is only vaguely referred to from time to time in the movie script.)

Bomer, Parsons and Mantello shine among the rest of the cast.  Bomer lost 40 pounds for the latter stages of his role, but as with Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club, it’s not just the changes in his appearance that are so powerful, but the depth of the fear and resolve he brings to the performance.  It’s probably not a coincidence that Parsons and Mantello both recently appeared in the play, and they dig very deep in their monologues, particularly impressive in Parsons’ case, since he still sounds very much like his most famous TV character.  Taylor Kitsch, certainly making a left turn in terms of the roles he’s played previously, is fine, but Bruce is the most underdeveloped character in the script.  He’s basically Ned’s nemesis at the GMHC, being closeted and committed to a policy of cooperation with the government rather than open confrontation, but Kramer never really gives him his due.  The same is true of Alfred Molina, briefly on hand as Ned’s investment banker brother, who’s never really accepted his brother’s sexuality and is something of a straw figure until he’s shown how wrong he is at the movie’s end.  Julia Roberts’ performance is entertaining but a bit of a star turn; you never really forget it’s Julia Roberts in that wheelchair.

By Ryan Murphy’s standards, The Normal Heart is the most restrained, straightforward work of his often baroque career.  He can’t resist the occasional overblown visual or forcibly stylized sequence, and he allows the film to close with more overt sentimentality than it needed, but for the most part he stays out of the way and devotes himself to the material and the actors.  It’ll be interesting to see if this was an approach he adopted only because of his commitment to this script, or if it will affect his work in the future.  The gravely lovely photography by Danny Moder and understated 1980s costumes by Daniel Orlandi and production design by Shane Valentino are also worthy of note.

The Normal Heart isn’t a milestone in the way that An Early Frost, Philadelphia and HBO’s own And the Band Played On were in the early pop culture treatment of AIDS; rather, it resembles the Platoon-driven wave of 1980s movies in which Hollywood finally dealt with the Vietnam War.  More elegiac than furious, handsomely reconstructed rather than fiercely immediate, it has a story that still needs to be told.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."