Jojo Whilden / HBO

Matt Bomer, left, and Mark Ruffalo star in the HBO presentation of “The Normal Heart,” based on Larry Kramer’s award-winning 1985 play.

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    Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer, Julia Roberts, Taylor Kitsch

    Director: Ryan Murphy

    Air time: 9 p.m. Sunday on HBO

TV review: HBO’s ‘Normal Heart’ succeeds with emotional intimacy

Published: Monday, May. 19, 2014 - 9:32 pm

The personal always outshines the political in “The Normal Heart,” a moving HBO adaptation of writer/activist Larry Kramer’s autobiographical 1985 play set in New York City at the onset of the HIV/AIDS crisis.

Directed with uncharacteristic emotional acuity by Ryan Murphy (“Glee,” “American Horror Story”) and debuting at 9 p.m. Sunday, “Heart” is a quality production throughout. Mark Ruffalo gives a complex performance as Kramer’s alter ego, Ned Weeks, leading a fine cast whose biggest name is Julia Roberts. Though Roberts plays only a few notes as a physician/researcher, she plays them well.

But many moments designed to stir – those in which the fiery Ned decries government inaction toward a health crisis then so new it was called “gay cancer” – lack the power of more intimate scenes. This is partly timing, partly writing.

“Heart” must really have been something in 1985, when it debuted at New York’s Public Theater as a call to action as well as a play. Its debut preceded by three months Rock Hudson’s acknowledgment he had AIDS – an announcement that brought home the reality of AIDS to many Americans. President Ronald Reagan and New York Mayor Ed Koch, Kramer’s main critical targets in the play for not doing enough, still were in office when it debuted. Another target, The New York Times, reviewed it.

The film sticks to the play’s 1981-84 timeline. Given what has come since – not just in HIV/AIDS awareness and treatment, but other screen depictions of ’80s AIDS activism – the film’s political element seems frozen in time.

Ned and the men with whom he forms the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (Kramer was a real-life co-founder), among the first groups to advocate for the men dying quickly from a condition about which little was known, encounter rabid homophobia and government indifference when they seek help.

As the group gains recognition, Ned challenges its president (a sympathetic Taylor Kitsch) to be outspoken and be “out,” period. But the young banker fears the professional repercussions of being gay publicly. The group designates Ned as spokesman because he is out – able to be because, as a former Hollywood screenwriter, he is financially secure. But the other group members then complain about Ned’s confrontational style.

The film offers few resolutions, because there was so little forward movement during the period it covers. So “Heart” lacks the storytelling arc of the 2012 documentary “How to Survive a Plague” or last year’s reality-based narrative film “Dallas Buyers Club,” for which Matthew McConaughey won an Oscar.

“Plague,” which follows the challenges and gains of the political action group ACT UP (which Kramer also helped found) and “Dallas,” in which McConaughey plays an AIDS patient who helps himself and others with black-market drugs, start in frustration but move far along enough chronologically to offer bright spots.

Activist characters in “Heart” also tend to speech-ify instead of speak. Broadway director Joe Mantello, here in an acting role as a GMHC member, delivers a long monologue as if he’s blurting it. Though his approach is correct, because the character is speaking off the cuff, the words are crafted too carefully for a blurt.

Same with many of Ned’s pop-offs, which are too filled with facts and figures to seem organic. This is not to deny Ned as bona-fide hothead. Ruffalo, usually a mellow onscreen presence, coils Ned with righteous indignation, then softens him with enough humor for Ned never to be obnoxious, no matter what his political foes say.

His outrage sometimes arises inopportunely, as it does on his first date with New York Times reporter Felix (Matt Bomer). Rather than try to woo Felix, Ned talks about what he sees as American Jewish apathy regarding what was happening overseas during World War II. How romantic.

Ruffalo is so good that you root for Ned regardless, but he’s magic with Bomer, a beautiful man who exudes more intelligence and kindness than vanity. Bomer plays Felix as quietly intrigued by the bundle of nerves that is Ned.

The Bomer-Ruffalo scenes form the heart of the film, the most emotionally harrowing moments of which director Murphy handles with great care. Though much of his work is visually hyperkinetic and/or tonally high camp, Murphy is sincere here, keeping flourishes to a minimum and offering a muted color palette.

Scenes in which AIDS patients are mistreated because of fear of contagiousness are more wrenching because of the straightforward way Murphy presents them. For those who recall the misinformation regarding AIDS in the early ’80s, it is not a stretch when hospital workers in “Heart” refuse to enter patients’ rooms, leaving their meals outside to rot.

Dr. Emma Brookner (Roberts) does not seem to fear breathing the same air as patients, though she knows little about their condition at first. The doctor, in a wheelchair from childhood polio, recalls to her ally, Ned, that she once was the ill person people feared.

Roberts has played every character from Erin Brockovich on with an undercurrent of anger. The top layer is usually anger, too. But the approach suits the doctor, who often must summon outrage in showdowns regarding funding and patient care.

But Roberts shows other colors in a scene in which Ned and the doctor have dinner. Gracefully written, acted and directed, the scene speaks to a desire for human connection that has nothing to do with sexuality or a health crisis.

Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.

Read more articles by Carla Meyer

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