It's been nearly 30 years since playwright Larry Kramer wrote The Normal Heart, his incendiary, explosive work about the '80s AIDS crisis. Yet HBO's new adaptation feels as fresh, as raw, as passionate as it must've come across then.
The Normal Heart isn't an easy piece of television to watch; it is straight-up painful at times. But director Ryan Murphy wants his viewers to feel angry, to feel hurt, to feel devastated by the many lives tragically cut short by the epidemic.
The movie centers around Ned Weeks (an incredible Mark Ruffalo), based on Kramer himself, who becomes an ardent activist pushing to raise awareness about the "gay cancer" striking down so many of his friends. He teams up with Dr. Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts), a flinty physician who is racing against the clock to find some kind of cure.
The Normal Heart boasts a sterling cast, and it's hard to pick out who shone brighter. Matt Bomer (White Collar, Magic Mike) is excellent as Felix, Ned's lover, who is diagnosed with the disease. The tenderness that he and Ruffalo show each other as Felix withers away is just heartbreaking. Bomer lost 40 pounds to play Felix in his last days, and it's gut-wrenching to watch his transformation toward the end of the movie.
The Big Bang Theory's Jim Parsons oozes compassion and love as Tommy, a steely Southern gentleman who delivers a rousing, poignant eulogy in one scene. Parsons played this role in the stage revival in 2011, and his ease and familiarity with it are very clear.
Then there's Friday Night Lights alum Taylor Kitsch, who proves he's more than a pretty face as Bruce, who clashes with Ned over the direction of their organization, the Gay Men's Health Crisis. Alfred Molina, Joe Mantello, BD Wong, Jonathan Groff — everybody is perfectly cast, everybody steps up to the plate.
If there's anything negative to say about The Normal Heart, it's that it sometimes feels a bit rushed. Perhaps HBO would've been wiser to order a two-part miniseries rather than cram everything into a 132-minute movie.
But that's nitpicking. In the end, The Normal Heart is a thunderous omen, a reminder not to forget. For younger folks, it may feel like the AIDS crisis was a million years ago; many of them hadn't been born. Advances in medicine have made the disease manageable. But that doesn't mean it's been eradicated, and millions continue to die from it.
And Murphy imparts such urgency through his direction, that you can't help but feel like answering that call to arms. We've won many battles, but we haven't won the war.
Emmy Chances for The Normal Heart
It's a no-brainer that The Normal Heart will likely rack up quite a few trophies at this year's Emmy Awards. We'd be shocked if it didn't win the Best TV Movie category, especially now that it is lumped together with miniseries. The experts at awards-predictions site Gold Derby agree: They've all placed The Normal Heart in their No. 1 slot. The Trip to Bountiful, Lifetime's adaptation of a Tony-winning play, seems to be a distant second.
The acting categories might be slightly tougher, as movies and miniseries still share the category there. But HBO's decision to place True Detective in the drama race versus miniseries should ease congestion. (Perhaps The Normal Heart was a factor in that decision.)
In the lead actor category, Ruffalo has a nomination in the bag. But Gold Derby's prognosticators place Billy Bob Thornton of FX's Fargo ahead of him. Ruffalo also has tough competition in the form of Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch and Thornton's Fargo co-star Martin Freeman.
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The supporting actor category is where things get really hairy. Bomer is a lock for a nomination, as is Parsons (he's a three-time Emmy winner, so clearly the academy loves him). The many other fine actors in The Normal Heart — specifically Kitsch and Molina — will face an uphill battle to get one of the other slots. And Bomer and Parsons, as good as they were, may leave the Emmy ceremony trophy-less, as they face the likes of Freeman in Sherlock and John Goodman in Dancing on the Edge.
We'll bet the television academy can't resist the star wattage of Roberts, so she'll probably land a nomination in the supporting actress category.
The Normal Heart premieres Sunday, May 25 at 9 p.m. on HBO.