The Normal Heart
Larry Kramer’s play "The Normal Heart" is "semi-autobiographical" in nature. In this case, that seems to mean Kramer ripped snippets out of his diaries and stitched them together into a story, with himself as both hero and bugbear. The play is pointy, scathing, abrasive; it bristles with the energy of outrage, and makes little outwardly evident attempt to pare and polish its narrative. The result leaves one’s heart feeling anything but "Normal" -- bruised, maybe, and certainly inflamed, but that’s probably a normal response to a crisis the magnitude of the AIDS epidemic.
The film version replicates the play’s frenetic and scattershot execution. This is especially prevalent early on; as "The Normal Heart" commences, Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo) is arriving at Fire Island for a holiday with his friends, including pretty boy Bruce Niles (Taylor Kitsch), Bruce’s boyfriend Craig Donner (Jonathan Goff, of HBO’s gay boys in San Francisco comedy "Looking"), and closeted city employee Micky Marcus (Joe Mantello). We’ re shown, with far too much editorial fussiness, the first encroachment of AIDS on the lives of Weeks and his companions: Craig suddenly grows dizzy and weak, and collapses on the beach. Until now, all has been sunshine and hairless skin: Suddenly, its as though clouds have covered the sun, and the film’s look darkens accordingly, with shadows growing deeper and thicker (sometimes almost garishly so). In one scene, Weeks, wandering around at twilight, resolves from the dim like a ghost; before him the fleshy tableau of an orgy unfolds. Happy, liberated sex is now dangerous, and love between men risks being shoved back into the shadows. All of this transpires before the opening title.
Kramer’s play was first written in the 1980s and has only now been translated into movie form, thanks in large part to the persistence of "Glee" and "American Horror Story" creator Ryan Murphy, who directs. The film hews perhaps almost too faithfully to the play -- which is not a surprise, given that Kramer himself adapted it for the screen.
But it does pose a challenge. The script retains a staginess about it that’s not immediately user-friendly to someone working in cinema. Murphy accepts that challenge, tweaking the film with inventive, if sometimes odd, touches -- a flashback to a bath hour that plays like a sleazy, produced-on-video commercial, for instance. In another scene, a delirious patient, skin marred with KS splotches, begs for his dog; the camera pushes up to his ravaged face, his eyes dead black in the room’s sickly light, and the sound of sirens out on the street floods the soundtrack. A first date veers from political rant to impulsive, greedy kiss in the space of an eye blink. A fractious gathering of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis concludes with the festive glimmer of a disco mirror ball.
Such directorial choices reflect the same mixture of friction, terror, and poignance of the crisis itself, not to mention the combination of humor and pugnacity that Weeks exhibits: Even in his most intense confrontations, Weeks is capable of dry, sometimes cutting humor. Fight or flight is his default setting... without the flight, that is. Weeks is a natural, and tenacious, fighter.
As his friends start growing sick and dying, Weeks grows more upset and befuddled at everyone’s meekness. Sharing his sense of profound concern -- and his blunt manner -- is Dr. Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts), a physician who works closely with New York’s gay population as the new disease spreads and who first sounds the alarm that the mystery illness might be sexually spread. What Weeks wants is for for gay men to get up and make a loud, public noise in order to safeguard their lives; what Brookner wants is for gay men to stop sleeping around. Hers is not a message that’s welcomed by a generation that has made hot, unapologetic sex a political statement, if not an ideology in and of itself.
Bookner is Weeks’ equal, and his complement; Conflict may be his natural condition, but hers is loneliness. He despairs that others aren’t fighting; she can’t see why it’s unacceptable to ask men to refrain from sex. Then again, one senses that the doctor herself lives a solitary life, one that’s confined to a wheelchair ever since a childhood bout of polio. The two may have different responses, but they are on the same emotional wavelength. They are like chalk and chalk. When they share the screen there is a definite, if platonic, electricity and a grouchy tectonic warmth.
But even New Weeks has a heart, and he loses it to Felix Turner, a New York Times reporter Weeks initially pressures to write about the disease. His romantic interest in Turner takes root as gruffly and bluntly as any other strong emotional tie does for the fledgeling activist. Eventually, the two move in together, and here’s where the movie finally finds its center, gaining a sense of pace and rhythm. The frenetic and somewhat choppy first half of the story gives way, by degrees, to a more controlled second half, characterized less by Week’s rages than by quieter moments that carry far more power.
By that point, the film’s structural and stylistic flaws hardly matter; the story’s raw emotional power has taken over. (The play operates in much the same way.) What you’ll come away with is the film’s poignant urgency, still resonant and necessary today.
"The Normal Heart" airs at 9:00 p.m. on Sunday, May 25, on HBO.