The big-screen heart

HBO’s The Normal Heart showcases great gay talent but feels rushed

The Normal Heart is an adaptation of Larry Kramer’s 1985 Tony-winning play about the early days of the AIDS epidemic. The film kicks off in 1981. A group of friends hang out at Fire Island . . . dancing to Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love,” drinking, sniffing poppers and making out.

We’re introduced to Bruce Niles, a closeted investment banker and military man (a bleach-haired Taylor Kitsch) and his sweet lover Craig (Looking’s Jonathan Groff) and friend Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), a writer.

Ruffalo is essentially playing Kramer here. Weeks seems a little irritated and uncomfortable among the tanned and perfect torsos posing and preening at a poolside party . . . and at every turn on the beach. But when Speedo-clad Craig starts coughing and falls down onto the sandy beach we know where the movie is heading.

This event will transform Weeks into the Hulk of AIDS activism. He smashes everyone, from aloof “gay” New York mayor Ed Koch to the Reagan administration and even his friends and fellow co-founders of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis.

Director Ryan Murphy (Glee, American Horror Story) films every moment with such intensity that there is no breathing space to develop the characters and let them become characters we dearly care about.

There are very horrific scenes of the treatment of AIDS patients during the early stages of the epidemic, but we really don’t know anything about these individuals. We’re introduced to them as a new boyfriend or longtime companion and then the next scene they’re dead.

Jim Parsons does a really lovely job reprising his role of sweetheart Tommy Boatwright from the 2011 production of the play. Julia Roberts is quite formidable as Dr Emma Brookner (her eyes have a tired optimism throughout). As city worker Mickey, actor Joe Mantello (who played Ned in the 2011 Broadway revival) explodes at one point in a scene that really kind of blew my mind. As good as Ruffalo is in the movie, I think Mantello would have been a way better choice to play the unsympathetically intense Weeks. Mantello’s frazzled nervousness is more endearing than Ruffalo’s blank stares.

Beautiful Matt Bomer as Weeks’s lover Felix does a tremendous job. Sadly, the only scenes we get of their relationship is a very weird and awkward first date and one sex scene, and all they seem to do together is watch old movies and eat a lot of Häagen-Dazs . . . that’s about it. So when Felix slowly deteriorates from the disease — as heartbreaking as it is — seeing more of their relationship/life together would have made Bomer’s performance that much more powerful. This really should have been a four-hour mini-series to flesh out the characters and their stories.


The one great thing I loved about watching this movie was seeing a bunch of talented gay actors getting a chance to play myriad complex gay characters. Can Hollywood do this more . . . please! Seriously.

The Normal Heart screens Fri, May 23 at 9pm at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, 350 King St W, and airs Sun, May 25 on HBO.

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