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Knight at the Movies: The Normal Heart; film note
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times

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Fate has played an interesting part in bringing Larry Kramer's play The Normal Heart to the screen. After 30 years of a fractious, circuitous journey that included 10 years in the hands of Barbra Streisand, Kramer's searing play about the onset of the AIDS crisis in New York City has somehow ironically ended up with the perfect director for the material: Ryan Murphy.

Although Murphy has not had much success directing movies ( which include Running with Scissors and Eat Pray Love ), the same cannot be said for his television projects. He is renowned for creating the show Nip/Tuck, co-creating Glee and overseeing both with an iron first. Those two programs share Murphy's rather odd signature: a propensity for scripts that push the envelope for ultimate shock value one moment and lay on the gushiest of sentiment the next.

This sweet-and-sour mix is most notably seen in Murphy's most recent television success, American Horror Story, which easily—certainly in its screen adaptation for HBO ( debuting this Sunday, May 25 )—could have been an alternate title for Kramer's angry polemic of a play, as it, too, embraces that same combination. Together, these two feisty, mightily talented gay men—coming from different generations—have given us an extraordinary film experience.

"You cry and you cry until you think you can't cry anymore. And then you cry some more," Mark Ruffalo's Ned Weeks, the character standing in for Kramer, wearily comments in voiceover as he contemplates the escalating illness of his partner, Felix ( played by Matt Bomer ). By that point—about halfway through the film—the same will be said for many members of the audience. Certainly, legions of gay men will view the film through a haze of grief, reminded of lost loved ones. Decades of AIDS-themed films and documentaries—from Philadelphia to How to Survive a Plague—have not dulled the sharp pangs or the bitterness.

The material is heartbreaking and relentless—awash in despair and visually, it takes a warts and all approach, too. Murphy doesn't stint in either area—pushing his actors to go for broke ( expect lots of Emmys ) and putting the grossest aspects of the virus in your face without apology. So, yes, a feeling of dread hangs over everything but, surprisingly, not unlike Longtime Companion, the 1989 feature that the film most closely resembles ( down to the Fire Island opening scenes ), some very welcome flashes of light and loveliness manage to cut through all the darkness.

Beginning in 1981, when AIDS made its first terrifying appearance ,and continuing through 1984, when the plague was killing thousands, The Normal Heart follows Ned, a successful screenwriter living the good life in Manhattan, heading to Fire Island on the weekends with his friends but staying on the sidelines during the frenetic trysting, pining for a relationship. As the epidemic takes hold, Ned—who is unapologetically out while the majority of gay men around him are still largely closeted—becomes ever-bolder in confronting the indifference of the straight world and the timidity of his fellow gay activists.

Ned's anger knows no boundaries and tests the loyalty of everyone around him—from his straight brother, a well-heeled lawyer ( Alfred Molina ), his fellow activists, the impossibly pretty Bruce ( Taylor Kitsch with blonde highlights ), the Jewish intellectual teddy bear Mickey ( Joe Mantello, riveting as he delivers the movie's trickiest monologue ), the acerbic Southern belle Tommy ( Jim Parsons, who is droll, funny and moving ) to the terse, wheelchair-bound Dr. Emma Brookner ( Julia Roberts, tough and touching ). For the nascent activists—trying to curry favor with the closeted Mayor Koch and other New York city officials—Ned's in-your-face style is finally too much. He is forced out of the volunteer organization he founded at about the same moment Dr. Brookner is denied federal research funding and Felix, Ned's handsome lover, is on his deathbed.

The film, like the play, ends with a thousand questions unanswered, its gay Cassandra momentarily silenced but far from contrite. A sequel is called for ( and Kramer, no doubt incorporating part of his follow-up play, The Destiny of Me, is working on one for HBO ).

Ruffalo, heading a sensational cast, goes for broke as Ned, whether in a confrontation with Molina ( an electrifying scene ), dancing with a hesitant Roberts to Johnny Mathis' "Chances Are, or suddenly breaking down in agony at the thought of Felix dying. But he's also a little, too, well …nice; when Ned describes himself as an asshole to another character you don't really believe it. The terrifying, off-putting rage that should be inherent in the character seems to come and go ( and the noticeable and rather unfortunate fey, stereotypical tics Ruffalo gives to Ned are, to be kind, irksome ).

The real acting surprises here are Bomer ( who lost 40 pounds for the role ) as Felix—the dreamboat boyfriend who breaks your heart with his sweet humanity ( "Men do not naturally not love. They learn not to," he tells Ned )—and Kitsch as the pretty, surprisingly complex Bruce, who narrates the movie's most horrifying sequence ( which in typical Murphy fashion, leaves nothing to the imagination ). Other actors—Denis O'Hare, Jonathan Groff, Danielle Ferland, Stephen Spinella and B.D. Wong—are memorable, making the most of their scant screen time. With material this powerful and a cast working with all cylinders firing, it's hard to single out any one performance.

Aside from assembling this dream cast ( many of them openly gay ), technically, Murphy has made choices that superbly support the material as well—the overriding darkness of the theme is always present ( even at the outset on Fire Island ) in Daniel Moder's cinematography, Cliff Martinez's synth based, icy score harkens back to the '80s ( and Murphy picks just the perfect retro songs as well ), and the hair and makeup are top-notch.

Queer-themed plays have proven to be good box office at the theater but not so much in movie houses ( quite the opposite, unfortunately ), which makes HBO once again ( in light of last year's Behind the Candelabra ) deserving of a huge pat on the back for taking a chance with The Normal Heart. The collaboration between Murphy and Kramer seemed like a natural from the moment it was announced, and now we have the proof of that sensible decision—in all its incendiary, heart-wrenching magnificence.

Film note:

—Director Marta Cunningham's heartbreaking and unforgettable documentary Valentine Road ( my best for 2013 )—which explores the murder of 15-year-old Lawrence King, a gay teen with trans tendencies, by the male classmate King had a crush on—is playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., on Tuesday, May 27, at 6:30 p.m. as part of the Siskel's Human Rights Watch Festival. Cunningham, along with Human Rights Watch's LGBT Rights Division Director Graeme Reid will be present for audience discussion that Ryan Blitstein, president and CEO for Change Illinois and HRW Chicago committee member, is moderating.

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