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.
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.
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?).