By Winnie Khaw
“I’m trying to understand why nobody gives a shit that we’re dying!” angrily shouts writer and gay activist Ned Weeks, the abrasive protagonist of the HBO film The Normal Heart. “Where’s this big mouth I hear you’ve got?” Emma wants to know. “Is big mouth a symptom?” Ned returns. “No,” she says. “It’s the cure.”
I will be looking at the creative road on which writer Larry Kramer, director Ryan Murphy and the actors (mainly Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts, Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons, Alfred Molina, and Taylor Kitsch) drive the story, not particularly the historical vehicle, which is already established as a classic model.
Julia Roberts gives an excellent and believable performance as the straight-speaking no-nonsense Emma whose frustration with willful ignorance blares as insistently as a fire alarm that no one wants to heed. The fact that Roberts competently fills her role causes her to stand out from an acting ensemble whose members, other than Alfred Molina, rather miscast, miswritten, or misdirected. Mark Ruffalo as Ned Weeks appears, incredibly, to be entirely too mild-mannered and sympathetic, despite his harangues and tirades.
Based on the writer and activist Larry Kramer himself, Ned is supposed to alienate, discomfit, piss off, and ultimately rouse an inert public to awareness and urgent action. I found him quite reasonable and armed in a righteous crusade, which I suspect is not the effect Ned ought to have on people. I think that taking Ned to be bullish in his opinions yet not gripping in his aggressive behavior is disappointing.
Sadly, the romantic relationship Ned and New York Times fashion reporter Felix Turner, played by the obviously beautiful Matt Bomer, sags completely in terms of plausibility. Their doomed love, according to most critics, is the humanizing aspect of the film. I agree that indeed it ought to be but that the terribly predictable nature of its end, the exaggerated physical rather than emotional intimacy, the unconvincing process of Ned and Felix falling into bed and love at first sight, in fact, nearly everything about the situation lacks realistic motivation and bears an unanswered question mark asking “Why?” According to actor interviews, Felix is attracted to Ned because of the latter’s fiery convictions in comparison to Felix’s “compartmentalization” of his sexuality as separate from his workplace. As Ned grows to love Felix, he is supposed to grow softer and kinder. Such interpretations would certainly make for an interesting dichotomy and transformation of self – this is not how the story plays out.
Alfred Molina, who plays Ned’s older brother and lawyer, Ben Weeks, an upright citizen of society who sincerely loves Ned but cannot bring himself to accept Ned’s sexuality, presses the necessary keys with experienced finesse. Molina’s fine, nuanced acting wonderfully represents Ben’s inner conflict on what to think, feel, and do regarding Ned’s lifestyle. The contentious debates between the brothers, Ned wanting verbal affirmation of acceptance and Ben unable to provide such reassurance, are invigorating and some of the highlights of the film.
While not completely lackluster flat, whether their speeches are embittered, urging moderation, or heavy with profound grief, Parsons’ and Kitsch’s actual deliveries as Tommy and Bruce, respectively, tends toward tepidity. The two offer a needed contrasting attitude and planned course of action to Ned’s brash and relentless fury but Parsons and Kitsch are not quite strong enough in demonstrating the anguish their characters must be enduring in the midst of this tragedy. For some reason Parsons seems to hang back from a full commitment to being Tommy, to keep a slight distance from what is happening around him. Kitsch is often generic in his displays of feeling in indignation at Ned’s dismissal of his efforts grief at the deaths of his lovers one after another and does not really rise above the minimum of what is required of him.
Unfortunately, Director Ryan Murphy seems almost to squeeze pathos from The Normal Heart rather than allowing the film to beat on its own at its own pace and so the painful events unfolding feel close to contrived instead of truly resonating. Murphy may not be held completely responsible. The critique can perhaps be attributed to a sometimes plodding script.
The Normal Heart does not quite fulfill its powerful promise. Many to-be viewers declared that they cried upon watching only the trailer; I myself am leery of such an intense reaction experienced before seeing the film itself, and I think that expectations and some foreknowledge of the plot beforehand, as well as recognition of the cast’s star power, prematurely glamorized the quality of the production.