Ryan Murphy’s (Glee, American Horror Story) adaptation of Larry Kramer’s semi-autobiographical play about the outbreak of AIDS in New York City circa 1981 is a mixed bag, often poignantly moving but more often numbingly repetitive. The film does not shy away from the cruelties of the disease and the inaction that followed its introduction, echoing the source material, an urgent polemic written before there was even a test and the disease was called GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency). It is an activist story for a perilous time (the play was produced in 1985) and the immediacy of the stage. Under Murphy’s direction, Mark Ruffalo, as New York City writer Ned Weeks, is largely utilized in a series of stem winders and broadsides against the Koch and Reagan administrations, the insouciant gay community and in particular, his fellow board members of a nascent advocacy and care group. Weeks’ passion is noteworthy but by the end of the picture, you fully understand the frustration of his compatriots. His tactics (a combination of haranguing, attacking and outing) are such that they can’t get a hotline set up without Weeks sneering or warning about the next Dachau (Kramer himself would end up being instrumental in the founding of Act Up, which was decidedly more confrontational and, to be fair, effective). A missed opportunity of an actual exchange, for example, is the fact that Weeks is affluent, making his offering of the livelihoods of all of his co-activists (one of whom is in the military) a rather cheap and easy proposition. This factor is unexplored beyond a toss-off comment.
Ruffalo is joined by several other notables (including Julia Roberts as a doctor on the frontlines and Taylor Kitsch as his more measured activist friend), all of whom have their own speeches, all movingly delivered but all awkwardly stagey. When they occur, we are meant to listen respectfully to the sermons, which are heartfelt, often spoken to bigots and/or bureaucrats (poor Dennis O’Hare, who, after this and Dallas Buyer’s Club, is a cottage industry of unsympathetic pencil pushers in AIDS dramas) or screamed at the heavens, and wholly devoid of nuance. As noted by Frank Rich in his review of the play back in 1985, “the playwright starts off angry, soon gets furious and then skyrockets into sheer rage . . . Some of the author’s specific accusations are questionable, and, needless to say, we often hear only one side of inflammatory debates. But there are also occasions when the stage seethes with the conflict of impassioned, literally life-and-death argument. … The writing’s pamphleteering tone is accentuated by Mr. Kramer’s insistence on repetition – nearly every scene seems to end twice – and on regurgitating facts and figures in lengthy tirades. Some of the supporting players … are too flatly written to emerge as more than thematic or narrative pawns. The characters often speak in the same bland journalistic voice – so much so that lines could be reassigned from one to another without the audience detecting the difference. If these drawbacks … blunt the play’s effectiveness, there are still many powerful vignettes sprinkled throughout.” Murphy’s film is nothing if not faithful to Rich’s evaluation.
When Murphy moves away from the politics of the disease and human relationships, the picture is much stronger. The relationship between Weeks, who is reticent about intimacy and the gay world’s sybaritic nature, and his lover Felix, played by Matt Bomer, is an exchange that offers a view into the difficulties growing up and being gay. The scene where Ruffalo demands that his straight and supportive brother (Alfred Molina) accept that they are essentially the same is the best one of the film, as each character is given a voice. And The Big Bang Theory‘s Jim Parsons delivers a beautiful eulogy for a friend and by extension, for all the “plays that will not have been written, dances that will not be danced” that is heartrending. Sadly, these scenes are the exception rather than the rule, and the watching of The Normal Heart eventually lapses into a very unfortunate place for entertainment – duty, a film you “should” see rather than one you would necessarily want to.