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REVIEW: HBO's 'The Normal Heart' Is an Overdramatic Mess and a Missed Opportunity

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by Peter Knegt
May 19, 2014 10:39 AM
15 Comments
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There are essentially endless histories tied to the nearly 35 years that the world has been aware of AIDS.  Larry Kramer's "The Normal Heart" -- whether his 1985 play or the new HBO film which he adapted himself -- is just one. A largely autobiographical depiction of Kramer's experiences in New York City during the first few years of AIDS (which was then simply called GRID -- Gay Related Immune Deficiency), "Heart" offers a singular perspective of how the crisis was handled by the gay community, by government authorities, and by Kramer himself (via the slightly fictionalized character of Ned Weeks). And there's nothing wrong with that. Especially since Kramer's perspective is a unique and authentic one that felt passionate and necessary on stage. Which is part of the reason why it's so unfortunate that after years and years of trying to get "The Normal Heart" made into a film, it's been handled as poorly as it has by almost everybody involved, including Kramer himself. 

ANOTHER TAKE: Ryan Murphy Finally Finds the Pulse of 'The Normal Heart' in an Uneven but Devastating Adaptation

In one the few sequences that delves considerably from the play, the HBO version of "Heart" begins in the summer of 1981, with Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo) heading to Fire Island to meet up with a group of his friends, including closeted Bruce (Taylor Kitsch) and Bruce's current flame, Craig (Jonathan Groff, who between this and "Looking" is having a very gay year over at HBO). It aims to set up two of the core narratives of "The Normal Heart":  That Ned is an outsider to the gay community with self-hate issues (he scoffs at the beach party-meets-orgy vibe of Fire Island, even though it's clear he secretly wishes to feel a part of it), and that a mysterious, unbelievable something is going down in the health of gay men (Groff's Craig collapses on the beach for no apparent reason, followed up shortly by Weeks' reading a piece in The New York Times about a "gay cancer").  With campy dialogue and obvious narrative devices, it's a somewhat forgivably lazy introduction to the world we're about to spend two hours in, but it's also the first indication that while Kramer struggles to wholly transition "The Normal Heart" from stage to screen, he could have clearly benefited from working with a director with the capability of knowing how to scale things back a bit, which Ryan Murphy absolutely does not.

HBO

Ryan Murphy has had a substantial and at times admirable career with television series. "Popular," "Nip/Tuck," "Glee" and "American Horror Story" are all series that have at least in part shown that Murphy has substantial talent. But as a filmmaker, his pre-"Normal Heart" contributions have been two sincerely terrible adaptations of memoirs -- Augusten Burrough's "Running With Scissors" and Elizabeth Gilbert's "Eat Pray Love"  (the latter of which I'd personally regard as one of the worst movies of the past decade). Unfortunately for anyone with high hopes for "The Normal Heart," it's filmmaker Murphy that seems most present here. With someone that had a little more restraint, Kramer's excessively theatrical script could have blossomed into a rare and powerful example of AIDS depicted in film. But Murphy exaggerates everything even further, from the scenes to the sets to the lighting to the performances, mostly diluting "The Normal Heart" of the emotional resonance so apparent in the history its depicting. Case in point is that initial Fire Island sequence, which complete with consistently cheap and fetishizing close-ups of scantily clad men on the beach briefly feels like a gay version of "Girls Gone Wild" (a flashback sequence at a bathhouse and a scene set a fashion show are similarly horrible).

The film follow Ned from Fire Island back to New York City, where he forms a pioneering interest in AIDS, building a relationship with one of the few doctors interested in the cause (Julia Roberts, on the hunt for an Emmy), and forming the Gay Men's Health Crisis -- a social activism group where he quickly butts heads with every member (including Taylor Kitsch's still-closeted Bruce and a sassy Jim Parsons as Tommy Boatwright) because of his aggressive tactics ("We're doomed if we do it your way," someone yells at him at one point, and they might as well be doing the same for half the movie). We also see him fall in love with a New York Times reporter named Felix Turner (Matt Bomer), who he meets trying to convince to be more aggressive in reporting on the vastly underreported disease. All of which progresses from 1981 to 1984 as the urgency of AIDS intensifies, and every actor gets an overemphasized, grandiose speech that feels made for a clip reel at an award show.  Ruffalo, Roberts and Bomer are all for better-or-worse game for this, though Parsons and Kitsch are nearly laughable in their big dramatic moments, suggesting either both were woefully miscast or that Murphy is just too bad a director to show them where to go.

Don't get me wrong -- a film dealing with the onset of AIDS absolutely warrants some dramatics. It was clearly a terrorizing time of gruesome hopelessness and profound paranoia (this film could have just as easily been called "American Horror Story"). But that's why there was no need for "The Normal Heart" to spend so much time going over the top. The drama was already there, and what the film needed to do above all else was humanize it.  Which Murphy's lack of restraint aside, isn't helped by how Kramer mostly underwrites every character that isn't his alter-ego (which puts a lot on Ruffalo's shoulders, and he admittedly does a commendable job with what he's dealt). 

This isn't to say that "The Normal Heart" isn't without its moments.  It has some smaller, intimate sequences scattered throughout that almost feel like they belong in a different film -- and work quite well. Like the courtship between Ruffalo's Weeks and Bomer's Felix, which is raw and tender, effectively revealing with more depth the issues Weeks has with his own sexuality. Or a heartbreaking scene set years later where Weeks has to take care of a now AIDS-stricken Felix (Bomer's physical transformation in the film is notably stunning), holding his skeletal naked body in the shower and scrubbing off the feces he accidentally got all over himself. Or the narrative between Weeks and his high-powered lawyer brother (an excellent Alfred Molina), who ignorantly refuses to do all in said power to help him. 

These scenes are where the physical and emotional brutality of AIDS is expressed most truthfully, with the writing, directing and acting all finding uncharacteristic moments of control. If only that could have been the norm for "Heart," which could have made it a forceful introduction to the impact and history of the disease that stood alongside its exceptional cinematic counterparts "Angels in America" and "How To Survive a Plague." But it's not. Instead, it's messy and disjointed, never confident in its tone and failing to live up to its epic potential. Hopefully if Kramer and Murphy do indeed team up for a sequel, they find a way to make it up to us (maybe by hiring someone else to direct it?).

Grade: C


ANOTHER TAKE: Ryan Murphy Finally Finds the Pulse of 'The Normal Heart' in an Uneven but Devastating Adaptation


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15 Comments

  • katie taylor | July 6, 2014 11:43 PMReply

    Peter's review of TNH is at odds with his predictions that Ruffalo, Roberts and the movie will win the Emmy in their categories. He also has Bomer listed as being nominated but not winning which is weird since there appears to be universal agreement that Bomer will win in the best supporting actor category. Odd that he think such a mess of a movie can produce this many winners.

  • Klepko | May 30, 2014 3:36 PMReply

    Good review, - I found Normal Heart's writing borderline atrocious.

    There are some decent monologues in the picture, but dialogue between characters is very inadequate, and often poorly performed. Line to line, some conversations barely made sense, and interjections like the bathhouse where our lovers first met introduce both visual and narrative themes that are distractingly unnecessary.

    Personally I though the most powerful scene was Joe Mantello's office breakdown, one of the rare instances where performance, writing and context were driving toward the same goal.

  • LIVED IT | May 27, 2014 4:59 PMReply

    Your review I found horrible.

  • Kandice | May 26, 2014 8:06 PMReply

    Can someone explain to me how Felix got Aids and Ned was spared!?

  • Sheila | May 26, 2014 7:20 PMReply

    It felt disjointed to me, too many short scenes that just seemed stuck in there. The long scenes where something actually happened were pretty good. But it was too choppy for me, which seems like a directing problem rather than the material.

  • Scott | May 26, 2014 4:36 AMReply

    There is so much that could be said. Okay, the Fire Island scene had some of the stereotyping that 'Long-time Companion' possessed, but I feel that the film reflected the intensity of the period in a fairly adequate manner. Overdramatic mess? Not for me. I lived through this terrible decade, and also cared for AIDS patient's in a Chicago hospital. Julia Roberts did a fine job. I would challenge some of this film's critics to produce a perfect adaptation of Larry Kramer 's play. It wasn't perfect, but few films can capture an entire decade of complicated, highly emotional moments.

  • FP | May 26, 2014 2:35 AMReply

    Considering how much this site fetishizes twinks like Xavier Dolan, it's wholly unsurprising that the critic finds as much fault as the guy who was allowed, not having even seen the film, to offer 2 pages on how much he didn't want to see the film.

    That half of the review is spent bemoaning a quick depiction of Fire Island by the unrestrained Ryan Murphy, who apparently makes lesser films than the dreck many LGBT people are asked to sit through whether for free or not, should have been the clue that this adaptation was never going to get a fair take from the cool queers. Why would they when Kramer's central thesis injures their right to throw caution to the wind, history proving him correct be damned?

    In the end, it is a Ryan Murphy film and there are places it could have reigned itself in. "Julia Roberts, on the hunt for an Emmy" plays a doctor so frustrated at every turn by the entire world's ambivalence to the deaths she witnessed daily and resentment of her talking about it that her eventual Al Pacino-like antics are not only warranted, they're necessary, as are Ned Weeks', as was Larry Kramer's. But don't let that stop anyone from offering a queeny dig about it. That fault is found in an angry film version of an angry stage play means the critic is too eager to want to downplay the very horrors he barely allows the characters or the people they're based on to have. Why even make the film if it's to be serene and cool and detached? So 30 year olds can feel less scared about their own questionable proclivities? Whatever. So why should anyone care what someone detached from that era thinks anyway? Go watch MOMMY again and beat off.

  • JS | May 26, 2014 1:34 AMReply

    Could. Not. Agree. More. What a missed opportunity this film is (though given Murphy's track record, I'm not surprised). Over-the-top depictions of early-80s gay life that seem crassly inspired by Murphy's feelings of having missed out on all the scantily-clad fun; stunning performances that he seems not to know what to do with and which he allows to just sit there, as if they might be drowned out by the air conditioning if they were unfolding in your actual living room; other almost laughably over-the-top performances you can't believe he didn't have the presence of mind to rein in; and a preaching-to-the-choir disinterest in actually humanizing and detailing what AIDS was and is in favor of gay-soap-opera-style telling instead of showing. It's both interesting and frustrating that Murphy's stated objective here is to keep people from forgetting the story of AIDS, because when it comes time to really take us through that story, he just relies on what he assumes we already know--and for people younger than 40 or so nowadays, that is sadly, shockingly little. Much like with "Eat, Pray, Love," Murphy can't be bothered with giving us a foundation on which to build allegiance to these characters. He'd much rather just cut to the scene-chewing. Thank God for Bomer and, surprisingly, Roberts, both of whom do God's work with what they're dealt. But directorially, this film is so feckless and lazy it borders offensive.

  • SS | May 22, 2014 9:24 AMReply

    It was silence and political restraint - that fueled this play. Mr Kramer spoke up - it wasn't subtle and it was meant to be disturbing and uncomfortable. I'm sorry if his version of "real life" doesn't meet your "critical expectations". And now for your writing skills...When I read a review, I am not interested in your opinion of another film. A comparison is acceptable, but clearly you were more interested in "impressing us" than reviewing this film. Try to focus...take off those academic glasses and see the "real" world for what it is. Every political "spin" is "over dramatic", it's part of life. You would have been "silent". I have little doubt. And now that you have a venue for your thoughts...you "babble".

  • Joe | May 21, 2014 10:35 PMReply

    I don't know if I can watch. Because of Barbra Streisand's involvement with this project years ago my childhood friend was able to realize a dream and see her in person. Whatever the merits of this production or others, I will always cherish Barbra's passion for the piece.

  • A | May 21, 2014 6:26 PMReply

    I think you had already decided you were going to dislike this movie when you watched it, because we clearly didn't watch the same film. I think it actually showed great restraint when dealing with the gruesome details. I was worried they were going overboard and they didn't. Ruffalo, Robers, Bomer, and Parsons gave exemplary performances and the movie struck the exact notes it was meant to. My friend, who saw the premiere and has been living with HIV since 1985, said to me afterwards "Yep. That's pretty much what it was like". I couldn't disagree more and I applaud Murphy for what he did with the movie. By the way, less is more was never Larry Kramer's approach, so I can't imagine why you would expect it in the film.

  • Nikki | May 20, 2014 6:51 PMReply

    I couldn't agree more with this review. I was at the NY premiere and I felt like the entire movie was trying to assault my tear ducts - if the last scene didn't do it - the next one surely would - and if that one failed there would be another weepy monologue that would try. Less would surely have been more - the performances were lovely but the disjointed scenes all felt the same and gradually started to annoy me rather than move me.

  • D | May 20, 2014 2:19 AMReply

    I disagree. I just saw the premier tonight. I found it to be a fast paced, well crafted drama, which is what it is. The scenes that this writer says are cheap and fetishizing very accuratelt captures what it feels like to be on Fire Island amongst gay men including the social standanrds and exclusivity. It is that cliche and cheesy. Similarly in bathhouses and fashion shows. Thats the point, Murphy I find is allowing these artifacts to demonstrate their own superficial reality in contrast to the realness of the relationships happening outside of those contexts. Julia was amazing, if she and Matt Bomer get an Emmy they deserve it compared to the boring performances of both Jared Leto and whats her name in Dallas Buyers club. A film that utterly bored me in comparison. And the scenes that this writer praises were gems that tied the film together. Overall, the film brought you into the center of the action, something a lot of dramas about this topic miss. It also allows itself to breath life into all the characters. I thoroughly enjoyed it. And why would there be a sequel? Who wrote this article?

  • Joseph Dalton | May 27, 2014 7:04 AM

    Even if you are right about the scenes you say "accurately capture" what it's like to be on Fire Island, in bathhouses and at fashion shows, do you really think that mainstream audiences can distinguish between "real life gay people" and those "cliche and cheesy" stereotypes shown to inhabit those contexts? Can you really not see how destructive this depiction of gay people is to America's understanding of what the AIDS crisis is really about? What it's about is human beings... just like themselves.

  • Jake | May 20, 2014 8:39 PM

    There is already a planned sequel. It's linked to in the article.

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