In the early days of the AIDS crisis, a time of unfathomable terror and despair in New York City’s gay community, one voice sounded louder and harsher than all the rest.
That unmistakable bellow belonged to Larry Kramer, the irascible, irrepressible and frequently irritating force at the center of a warlike campaign to bring public attention and funding to a plague that descended without warning upon gay New York in the early 1980s.
In 1985, Kramer captured the impotent horror of that movement and his own controversial role in it in “The Normal Heart,” one of the most harrowing pieces of activist theater of the 20th century. And now, with Kramer’s blessing and perhaps his self-aggrandizing influence, director Ryan Murphy has turned this electric theatrical polemic into a morose and muted film. It debuts Sunday on HBO, appearing like a pale impression of the screaming script that inspired it.
Murphy, best known for his camp-infused direction of “Glee” and “American Horror Story,” seems an odd choice to helm a project without even the slightest whiff of camp or irony about it. Judged against his other television work, his treatment of Kramer’s play is old-fashioned and surprisingly faithful to the narrative thrust of the play. But that very fidelity to the episodic structure of Kramer’s script and a noiresque visual style more befitting a “True Detective” episode than an activist drama, makes the story seem mostly airless and devoid of the urgent drive that makes it feel so vital and devastating in the theater.
Kramer wrote the character of Ned Weeks, his autobiographical stand-in, as an uncompromising agitator with a catalog of neuroses and a tendency to fly off the handle at the slightest provocation. Kramer designed him to be just barely endearing enough to like, with a skewed balance of irascibility and likability that makes him seem more believable and the action that surrounds him more real.
So it’s a big head-scratcher that Mark Ruffalo, who operates extremely well within a limited emotional range, was cast in the lead role. Across the film, Ruffalo’s inspired performance is consistently endearing and peppered with small eruptions of rage and neuroticism. It should be consistently neurotic and peppered with small eruptions of likability. Ruffalo seems constitutionally incapable of affecting annoyance, a virtue for most characters but a handicap for this one.
The story is set in the dawning days of the AIDS crisis, when people knew almost nothing about the disease and even less about how it passed from one victim to the next. With the help of a few friends and one committed doctor (played here in an excellent performance by Julia Roberts), Weeks launches Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the first major New York City group committed to stemming the spread of HIV/AIDS, in his apartment.
Soon, as the group grows, its political aspirations come into direct conflict with Weeks’ almost militant approach to activism, which involves invoking the persecution of Nazi Germany as well as swearing and publicly shaming politicians on live television. Amid all the political battles, Weeks meets and falls in love with a newspaper reporter (Matt Bomer), whose heartbreaking battle with the disease brings a devastating human dimension to what might otherwise have been an abstract political thriller.
The film’s strongest moments come when it animates the sections of Kramer’s play that remained secondhand because of the financial and physical constraints of theater. The most powerful of these is a scene in which Taylor Kitsch’s character flies his AIDS-afflicted boyfriend home to Arizona to see his family for the last time. As he tells the tearful story to Weeks, we see it play out in increasingly painful images:
One airline pilot refuses to fly an AIDS patient on his plane, so they wait for another pilot who will. By the time they pull the sick man off the plane and transport him to a Phoenix hospital, he is dead. No undertaker will accept the body, so Kitch’s character must pay a hospital janitor to throw his boyfriend’s body out with the trash, after which he and his boyfriend’s weeping mother must personally load the corpse into a car and take it to be cremated by an undertaker who charges them $3,000 for the service.
Like the deathbed wedding that occurs later in the film, it would seem melodramatic if it weren’t so infuriatingly true.
The swift brutality of that scene alone almost redeems Murphy’s valiant attempt to bring “The Normal Heart” to a wider audience. Some will find it worth watching for the excellent performances from Roberts, Jim Parsons and Joe Mantello and others, while others will appreciate it for shedding light on an important battle that is now all but forgotten. In the end, though, its emotional hooks prove too slippery to take hold.