HBO’s The Normal Heart stands strongest as a statement of purpose than an actual narrative piece, and considering the topic of choice, the burgeoning AIDS epidemic of the early 80s, that makes perfect sense. Thirty years after the first cases were reported, and largely ignored, HIV and AIDS are still major health concerns worldwide, with people become more complacent in their consideration and knowledge of the diseases. With that in mind, it makes sense that Ryan Murphy would employ the use of so many expository monologues warning the characters and the audience of the dangers lying ahead.
If only he allowed the story to speak for itself.
The sheer horror of AIDS is conveyed most effectively when the movie is focused on the love story between Ned Weeks and Felix Turner, played by Mark Ruffalo and Matt Bomer. Their relationship is surprising in how real it feels, more than just a plot device. It’s filled with quiet, intimate moments that realistically build into a genuinely deep love, eventually ravished by AIDS. Ruffalo and Bomer’s chemistry is palatable, making their character’s personal fight against the disease utterly devastating. One particular scene is unforgettable: in the shower, a naked and near-skeletal Felix (Bomer lost a staggering 35 pounds for the role) sobs while he is lovingly bathed by Ned. It is these moments, raw but grounded in silent, painful truth, that hit the hardest, showing just how destructive AIDS can be on life and love. Both actors give award-worthy performances, their scenes together providing the film’s emotional core.
Typical of Ryan Murphy’s previous work, there are plenty of over-the-top moments throughout The Normal Heart, but they vary in success and make for a rough narrative. The film’s opening on Fire Island, complete with a dramatic beach collapse, sets an inaccurate campy tone. Then there is the bathhouse scene, bathed in 80s VHS colors, that fits out like a sore thumb in the excellent first date between Felix and Ned. And then there are the monologues, so many monologues. Mark Ruffalo is great, albeit uneven in his performance, but the many speeches he delivers in the movie get tiresome. The other characters also get their moments to shine (read: Emmy reel) with much better results. Joe Mantello offers a torrid whirlwind of emotion in his office meltdown, Jim Parsons is somber and reflective in a friend’s eulogy, and Julia Roberts’s wheelchair bound doctor explodes in rage and frustration at a shamelessly ineffective NIH rep.
Those are powerful moments, for sure, but would have been better with a stronger narrative to fill the lulls in between. When the story isn’t focused on the Ned and Felix’s romance, there is little much else in actual story; there are characters sketched so broadly that they lack the dimension to make us truly care about them beyond the visceral shock of their deaths. There definitely isn’t enough time to cover all of the lost souls in the movie, but the holes left as a result negatively affect the story. The movie would’ve worked better if it specifically juxtaposed Ned’s public and private fight with this deadly disease.
The Normal Heart is necessary viewing just because of the powerful message and history it offers about AIDS. It also offers some truly excellent performances from its cast. However, those looking for a rich story will be disappointed. The Normal Heart, as a whole, is more of a manifesto meant to wake people up to the very real dangers of AIDS, past and present. That’s great for cultural document, not so much for creative work. When honed in specifically on the central romance, the movie simmers with bounds of untapped potential.