BOY CULTURE REVIEW: **1/2 out of ****
I feel bad admitting this, but I didn't love Ryan Murphy's The Normal Heart. I think having seen the recent Broadway revival—which along with August: Osage County, is the best straight play I've ever seen—set the bar too high for the HBO version.
But while I was underwhelmed, there was much to admire. Let's get the negatives out of the way first:
The hardest one to cope with is my disappointment with Mark Ruffalo. I love him as an actor and find him to be sexy as hell, but I never accepted him as “Ned Weeks.” His performance kept swinging from unaffected to uncomfortably swishy, and he never really burned with the passion required. He also failed to register as an asshole—he just seemed right all the time. That said, his chemistry with Matt Bomer was real and affecting.
Julia Roberts was fine as “Emma,” the German doctor in a wheelchair fighting the government to recognize a burgeoning epidemic and struggling to get gay men who have singled out promiscuity as their “principal political agenda” to lay off all the sex to save themselves, but I couldn't squint enough to overlook that she is a beautiful movie star who was pretending to be a plain and concerned scientist. It was a little like “Ginger Grant” as “Eva Grubb.”
Still, bless Mark and Julia for helping to get the picture made.
Overall, the film had a slightly canned quality (the opening, showing people arriving on Fire Island, was shockingly wooden), the period and other details sloppy (“Ned” had a pint of Ben & Jerry's in 1981/2...I'm not sure it would've been easily gettable in NYC then; Taylor Kitsch's kitschy fake chest hair). It just did not feel like the '80s.
Also, at two hours, the film felt rushed, so that many potentially moving moments had too little time to develop.
But I did find certain aspects of the film to be extremely effective and memorable.
First and foremost, I found Bomer to be a revelation. As exquisitely beautiful as any guy who's ever been filmed, he was perfectly cast as Weeks's idealized lover. He has an angelic quality that made him a perfect stand-in for the lost innocence of the short-lived sexual freedom that was cut short by the emergence of gay cancer. His transformation—from effortlessly '80s hunk to emaciated PWA—was gripping from the standpoint of being amazed by his weight loss (reportedly 40 pounds), but it was the shading of his skillful performance that most haunted me. He was the heart of the entire production.
The love story between “Ned” and “Felix” was beautifully sketched, from a charged meeting at the New York Times offices to an awkward but crackling first date. My favorite was the hilariously camp, period-perfect commercial used to communicate the surprise first encounter “Ned” and “Felix” had had at the baths. I actually really liked The Normal Heart when it dared to be a little arty—a shot of Ned and Felix through a screen when they're on the beach, a dying young model examining his distorted face in a beveled mirror...more of this would have been welcome.
As much as I loved Bomer, I was equally impressed with Taylor Kitsch, who came off as a completely different person—I didn't even recognize him at first. In the juicy role of “Bruce Niles,” the military man whose lovers die one by one and who becomes active in fighting against the disease in spite of his own issues with being so openly gay, Kitsch was charismatic and mercurial. Watching him wave off an NBC crew with the look of a wild animal after having seen his carefree existence on Fire Island was to watch a man stripped to his essence.
Performances by Alfred Molina, Joe Mantello and Jim Parsons were solid, though Parsons stood out more on Broadway than on TV.
At its core, The Normal Heart should be both a love story and the story of how AIDS ended a century's biggest party. The play does just that; the HBO film succeeds more at the former than the latter. Still, thanks in large part to Bomer, Murphy's Normal Heart did manage to communicate how hard it can be to accept not only that every party must end, but how hard it can be to accept that the inevitable end has come early.