Sometimes, a movie is so important that its greatest weakness is that it knows just how important it is.
You’d have to be insane to argue that The Normal Heart is unimportant; even if we set aside for a moment its significance as a historical text, AIDS is still an epidemic, and two consenting adults who love each other are still prohibited from getting married in a frighteningly wide swath of the county. So it makes sense that there would be a single-minded urgency to this movie, that it would ring with specific, targeted fury.
It’s just that…man, there’s a lot of yelling in this movie. I mean, it’s hard to screw up completely with a cast this stacked (unless you’re the producers of Movie 43, but no one wants credit for that), but when you have Mark Ruffalo and you give him one volume for the entire movie, it feels like a bit of a waste (he was given more opportunity to bring pathos to a giant green monster, is what I’m saying). The ridiculous nebbish accent he’s saddled with doesn’t do him any favors, particularly when he’s asked to put it to use in delivering shouted, overwrought, overlong monologues every five minutes. Similarly, when you have Julia Roberts and don’t ask her to stretch her range past “dour,” it also begs the question of why Murphy didn’t just pick up his female lead at the Budget Ingenue Mini Mart. (Though there was some lovely pathos in the suggestion that it’s Emma’s own loneliness which leads her to fight so fiercely for these men, it was such subtexty suggestion that I probably just made it up.) And while Matt Bomer is definitely going to deserve his Emmy in the “Extreme Body Modification For An Important Movie” category, his character’s purpose is mostly just to serve the plot.
And that’s when talking about this movie gets tricky, because to talk about it, you have to go all the way back to 1985, when the play was first produced, and the threat was scary and immediate and unheard, and so pages and pages of soapbox monologues were not only appropriate but necessary. In fact, those monologues probably work pretty well on the page or stage. The problem is, it’s 2014, this is a movie, I don’t think Morgan Freeman could make some of the dialogue in this movie sound natural, and it’s pretty obvious which were the places where Ryan Murphy sacrificed artistic value to make a political point. Honestly, this works much better as a political text than as an artistic one; it’s much easier to forgive the way that plots are picked up and dropped seemingly at random once you accept that whatever plot exists is there as a vehicle for the message.
I have a suspicion that, as a twenty-something heterosexual female, I’m not exactly the intended audience for this movie. Look, put another way, Jim Parson’s character Tommy is unable to bring himself to throw out the Rolodex cards for the men he knows who have died of AIDS, and so he keeps them rubber-banded in a desk drawer. While I found the gesture touching, I read an anecdote by a man who had, when he was experiencing this crisis in the real life ’80s, done the same thing, and found it haunting. So maybe the problem is that I’m too young or too straight or too female (I promised myself I wouldn’t talk about the fact that the movie seems to be doing us a huge favor by barely having two female characters, so instead I’ll link this great Indiewire article which does talk about it) to really appreciate this movie on the personal level for which it was intended.
Look, there is some genuinely great stuff here. The tragedy is made human in the form of Matt Bomer’s character Felix (I’d warn about spoilers, but HBO’s entire marketing campaign seems to have been designed around systematically eliminating this particular warning), and he and Ned have a charming and melancholy relationship. Ned’s brother Ben (Alfred Molina) stands in for all those people who are sympathetic but refuse to help, and those people even get a voice of sorts when Ben cuts through Ned’s crap and points out that Ned caring about the opinion of others is Ned’s problem. Taylor Kitsch finally makes up for having been the lead in every terrible action movie in the last three years by giving a wonderfully nuanced performance as someone who watches everyone he loves die, and is helpless to save either them or any other of the faceless mass of victims. There’s two sides to the debate here, and even though the movie comes down more often on Ned’s anti-establishment rage, it also leaves room for a college dance which suggests that Ned’s side is on the way out.
It’s just that those good parts tend to devolve into shouting or irrelevance, depending on the movie’s agenda in any given scene. Because no matter what else is going on, the agenda is the most important thing, and so which characters are friends or enemies or agree or disagree can vary based on the immediate message. Hell, I imagine the point of such a large cast is to give an idea of a community, but when half of them never even meet each other and the other half seem to spend time together only out of necessity, it’s hard to see this “community” as anything more than a vague ideal which is to be fought for but not lived, and it’s not hard to argue that this is because the characters matter less in terms of each other than in terms of the message. I’m not saying that the movie’s point didn’t need to be made; it’s just that, in the making, it sort of forgot to be a movie, and so, while The Normal Heart is certainly important, it’s also somewhat of a disappointment.