The Normal Heart’ muddles an important story of the AIDS epidemic

Joe Mantello (left) and Mark Ruffalo enjoy the calm before the storm.

Two and a half stars

The Normal Heart May 25, 9 p.m., HBO.

Larry Kramer’s 1985 play The Normal Heart is a polemic, an angry cry from the writer and AIDS activist who saw the nascent epidemic being ignored and/or marginalized by the government, the media, the medical establishment and even fellow members of the gay community in the early 1980s. It’s more political statement than drama, a time capsule of a certain kind of political action that has changed and developed greatly over the past few decades. As such, turning it into a movie in 2014 represents a difficult balancing act, one that Kramer (who wrote the screenplay for HBO’s movie version) and director Ryan Murphy can’t quite pull off.

Murphy, the co-creator of Glee and American Horror Story, has never been one for subtlety, and he’s very indulgent with Kramer’s many shouty monologues (most coming from Mark Ruffalo as Ned Weeks, Kramer’s fictionalized version of himself). Those long speeches are an essential part of Kramer’s message, but after the third or fourth time Ned starts screaming about the same injustices, it becomes all too easy to tune him out. More problematic is Murphy’s tendency to shoot scenes of sick and dying AIDS patients as if he’s making a horror movie, with lurid colors, tilted zooms and wide angles. Instead of engendering sympathy for people enduring what was at the time an unknown disease, he leers at them like they’re inmates in American Horror Story’s sinister mental hospital.

Thanks to a strong cast, The Normal Heart does manage to depict some affecting relationships, especially between Weeks and his lover Felix (Matt Bomer), a New York Times reporter, and between Weeks and his straight brother Ben (Alfred Molina), a wealthy lawyer. When Kramer and Murphy allow the characters occasional moments of calm, their emotional connections can be more powerful than all of the angry, didactic speeches. The story of the early days of the AIDS crisis and the activists who first responded to it deserves to be told, and while The Normal Heart might not be the most effective way to tell that story, its messy passion certainly demands attention.

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