The Normal Heart
Review by Mark Schwab
Larry Kramer has always been the self-identified shit disturber in the fight for LGBT equality. Kramer is in your face and unapologetic when it comes to calling out the closeted cowards who claim the mantle of permanent victimhood. He watched in absolute anger as the straight community showed indifference when the AIDS crisis began its wretched march in 1981 and continues to this day (someone in the U.S. is diagnosed with HIV every 9 minutes).
For years Barbra Streisand owned the movie rights to The Normal Heart but could never get the project off the ground. Now, almost 30 years later, Ryan Murphy (of Glee and American Horror Story) has pulled it off with the help of HBO who also made the groundbreaking, excellent 1993 adaptation of Randy Shilts' And The Band Played On. But where Band... told us the story from the point of view of a labratory, The Normal Heart attacks it from the political perspective. With extreme prejudice.
Kramer adapted his own play for the movie, clearly working overtime to "open it up" but still making sure his marquee cast all get their Big Moment to shine. This works up to a point but there is some uneveness in the performances and the direction by Murphy.
The first half is played a little too slickly and a bit too overacted by the main leads. Mark Ruffalo is the Kramer stand-in here (named Ned Weeks) and does a lot of hysterical shouting and overacting, especially when he's constantly calling out the office of New York Mayor Ed Koch (who really takes it on the chin here). So much so that it almost starts to lose power in his fierce advocacy for what he sees as a catastrophe just around the corner. I blame Murphy for directing Ruffalo this way though because in the quieter moments, especially the scenes with his lover (played beautifully by Matt Bomer), Ruffalo is excellent and effective.
Of the rest of the cast, Jim Parsons really stands out in a very strong performance as one of the board members of the Gay Men's Health Crisis. If you only know him from The Big Bang Theory, you'll be surprised how perfectly he sheds his television roots here. Also strong is Alfred Molina as Ruffalo's older brother. Julia Roberts as the polio-afflicted doctor trying to help the young men suffering struggles in her part unfortunately. She's just angry and one-note in every scene, except for a badly overacted sequence where she pleads for funding from the NIH.
After the set-up and speeches though, the second half really shows the heart in The Normal Heart as the characters get sicker and we are shown the real nuts and bolts as to what this disease did to the human body back in the mid-80's. Some of these second half sequences are very tough to watch and will almost certainly induce some serious tears to everyone but the most callous. Be prepared for some major emotional wallops that are guaranteed to make you grateful for your life, the ones you love and those who love you.
Even though we let this play out for far too long, strides have been made in the fight against AIDS and hopefully we'll never need to travel the horrific road again of turning a blind eye to a community in crisis simply because of who they loved.