History is a curious creature. What can appear as so initially exhilarating and provocative at its time, more often than not, comes with a short shelf-life. Similarly, there is a special kind of disappointment that comes with artistic endeavors which, despite their earnestness and noble intentions, fail to produce a meaningful, enlightening experience. A true marvel to behold are the productions that manage to achieve both. The Normal Heart succeeds admirably in this regard. Like a cake that won’t rise, it has a perverse curiosity: despite all the necessary ingredients, what was the missing je ne sais quoi in the original piece, and why did anyone think it was worth revisiting?
To those unfamiliar with Larry Kramer’s oeuvre, like I was in the months leading to its television debut, The Normal Heart seemed like a sure success. Following the inexplicable Oscar wins for Dallas Buyers Club, the awards bait equivalent to a week-old used condom, The Normal Heart sought to give voice, in a big mainstream way, to the community most deeply affected by the AIDS epidemic in the early years: gay men. A film of anger and compassion, a portrait of a community both nearly destroyed and strengthened by a horrific epidemic; it was to be the Do The Right Thing to DBC‘s Mississippi Burning. A Tony Award-winning revival of the play back in 2011 only made the prospect of it being the social message film of 2014 all the more enticing.
It was a tall order, and in hindsight, a fairly unreasonable one.
Films about AIDS have been around since the 80s, when An Early Frost and Longtime Companion found acclaim, both on television and in the independent cinema circuit, in how they sought to humanize those infected by the disease. In the 90s, films like And The Band Played On and Gia explored the disease on both macro and micro levels, respectively. However, it was Philadelphia that changed it all: a Tom Hanks vehicle and Jonathan Demme’s own partial apology to the queer community following the negative reception The Silence of the Lambs had received in certain circles. It took the horrors of AIDS, toned them down for mainstream American consumption, and gave a ‘recognizable human face’ to the crisis. It paid off: the film was a blockbuster success, fueled by Tom Hanks’ Oscar win for Best Actor and Bruce Springsteen’s Oscar for ‘Streets of Philadelphia.’ The film is very much a product of its time, and consequently, opened the floodgates for increasingly mawkish films about AIDS, before culminating in the grotesque-to-unintentional-parody piece of awards bait, Dallas Buyers Club.
Following that nadir, one would be forgiven for assuming The Normal Heart would be the film to take the horrors of the early 80s and bring them to the attention to a new generation. The film had the façade of a history lesson and a contemporary call for gay men to respect their health; to use an old cliché, it looked like the light at the end of the proverbial, cinematic tunnel. However, instead of reaching that light, The Normal Heart stumbles about in the dark, screaming into the void, hoping someone will draw close, only to have their ears yammered off.
With a subject that cries for sensitivity and nuance, Larry Kramer is perhaps not the best man for the job. I know, hard to believe the author of Faggots and rallying voice of the gay mafia wasn’t the best choice, but here we are. In the interest of fairness, I doubt Kramer’s original play, a historical curiosity in that its own shrill, didactic approach epitomized the saying, ‘preaching to the choir,’ could be successfully be adapted by anyone. Nevertheless, Kramer adapts his own work, and despite adding a few updates, time has not been kind to his play. For a man who has lived through unspeakable horrors, Kramer proves to be more concerned with his grandiose ego and self-righteousness than actually saying anything interesting or insightful about those early years of the epidemic. Much like a young paralegal returning to his high school reunion to gleefully intone just how much better he is than you, Kramer opts to take potshots at any and all characters who are not Larry Kramer or ardent believers in his cause. In his mind, if he wasn’t out there, shouting at the top of his lungs and alienating potential allies, AIDS would have won!
The film opens with Larry Kramer, sorry, Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), a writer vacationing in Fire Island circa 1981. A gay Mecca, the film swoons in delight at the tawny flesh on display, while cutting back to Weeks looking embarrassed, as he casually buttons up his shirt. The man stands alone amidst the hedonism and excess; the poor man just wants to find love. A completely reasonable request, but he’s unlikely to find it at Fire Island, in no small part because he also a wrote a book (gee, I wonder what it was called?) criticizing the FI gay community as a bunch of vacuous horndogs. When Mickey (Joe Mantello), gently chides him for that, Weeks, in an almost comically bewildered speech, says that he was just worried that love would be lost within the atmosphere of nonstop fucking. Again, not unreasonable, but the film’s unwillingness to suggest beyond fleeting superficial mentions that Weeks’ (and Kramer’s) remarkably unpleasant demeanor may have caused problems, is a tad too generous.
Five minutes in, one of the partygoers has collapsed on the beach, and Weeks’ encounters a frenzied orgy in a nearby park. The moody score contributes to a finely wrought sense of impending catastrophe. On his way back to Manhattan, he reads an ominous report about gay men coming down with a mysterious ‘cancer.’ The film leap-frogs to a scene where Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts), self-proclaimed ‘holy terror’ in a wheelchair and one of the very doctors treating these dying men, urges Weeks to do something. Weeks says he has no intention, but all within the course of what feels like 30 seconds, he’s founding the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, campaigning in the streets and being a rabble-rouser because… he wants to make a difference? He says at one point he wants to be remembered as ‘one of the men who won the war.’ Given how little is known about what makes Weeks tick, the viewer could also be forgiven for thinking he has such a colossal ego he had to make AIDS all about himself. All the while, he starts a romance with Felix Turner (Matt Bomer), a strikingly handsome, wonderfully patient newspaper reporter. Soon, in a plot development so obvious it doesn’t even merit a SPOILER ALERT warning, Felix gets the illness and slowly starts to succumb, while Weeks is still screaming his head off, demanding someone, anyone pay attention to the AIDS Epidemic. Unfortunately, he doesn’t realize that trying to out certain GMHC members or going on television and accusing Mayor Ed Koch (that twit) of murder, may not be the best move to win support with his fellow activists or the people of New York. Instead, once he is ousted from the group, he delivers a blistering speech decrying them all for their spineless. Ultimately, that sums up the entirety of Kramer’s screenplay. Some splendidly handled moments of horror and dread, all window-dressing for any opportunity to have a character give a big lecture about things. Even more egregiously, Kramer is so willing to forgive his own shortcomings, but he ruthlessly skewers everyone else who isn’t exactly on his side.
On the technical side, Ryan Murphy seemed like an odd choice to direct, but after watching the film, it makes a bit more sense. Murphy fancies himself a provocateur, so naturally a bile-laden screed against everyone, set against the backdrop of the AIDS epidemic, would be catnip to him. Murphy is a lot of things, but with the exception of American Horror Story: Asylum, he is not known for being the nicest to his characters. Thankfully, Kramer has already taken care of all that heavy lifting As a director, Murphy confuses vacuous with subdued, but with the material on hand, it’s hard to imagine even the most gifted directors bringing it to life. Murphy manages to squeeze in a couple of campy moments which while completely out of rhythm with the rest of the film, are at least funny in their own right. The first is deliberate; a cheese-tastic flashback scene set in a bathhouse which plays like a deleted scene from American Horror Story: Murder House. The second is accidental; the scene where Ruffalo and Bomer make beautifully cringe-inducing love. Bomer’s eyes cloud with tears, and the end product makes the sex scenes on Girls and You’re The Worst feel deeply profound and moving. My guess is it wasn’t what Murphy and Kramer were trying to get across.
The actors are the best part of the film, but even they feel stranded by Murphy’s flat direction and Kramer’s meretricious screenplay. Ruffalo, a wonderful actor, is given the most unplayable role of his career. Ned Weeks isn’t a character, he’s a blank vessel who exists solely to deliver impassioned monologues. Indeed, the whole film is so laden with shouting fits and rallying speeches, it makes Network look as quiet and subdued as The Wings of the Dove. Some actors handle the rants better than others. Roberts taps into her brittle, unlikable side and is triumphant; her Emma Brookner feels real. Her character, like all the characters in the film, is a symbol; a woman crippled by a rare disease (in her case, polio) who had to fight tooth and nail for respect and is the most strident, albeit scolding, voice for the health of gay men. It’s showy, divisive performance, but it felt like she was more than the sum of her rants. Bomer gives a subtle, nuanced performance despite having so little material to explore. Felix is The Tragic Lover™; he exists solely to be a crutch for Weeks and a haunting look at a healthy, beautiful man who is slowly ravaged by AIDS. Bomer reminds me a bit of Charlize Theron; he is a gorgeous, talented actor and like Theron’s work in Monster, Bomer isn’t afraid to shed his vanity. On a similarly unfortunate note, unlike Monster, Bomer a does not have a lot to do nor an opportunity to make out with Mark Ruffalo on roller skates to the Journey song, ‘Don’t Stop Believing.’ These are sad times.
So, what are we left with? The pettish ramblings of a small-minded man, which thoroughly waste the talents of his cast and an opportunity to explore the horrors of the AIDS Epidemic in the early 80s. However, hallucinatory readers, don’t be alarmed; films like And the Band Played On, Longtime Companion, and Gia are still available. As are extraordinary documentaries like We Were Here and How to Survive a Plague (both available on Netflix).
In an interview with The New York Times leading up to the debut, Kramer said, ‘It’s about speaking up, being a buffalo if you have to, being mean if you have to…. You do not get more with honey than with vinegar.’ Indeed, it is also common knowledge flies are drawn to shit.
Kramer and Murphy would know; the film is full of it.