TV Review: The Normal Heart

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Plot: Based on true events, and the Broadway play of the same name, The Normal Heart takes place in the early 1980’s, and the first outbreak of HIV/AIDS. An influential gay activist named Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo) forms a group to raise awareness of the virus, but is constantly fighting not only with New York politicians, but his own organization who feels he’s too confrontational.

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Much like the protagonist of the story, this movie is very passionate and in-your-face. I admire The Normal Heart for how dedicated the actors were to these roles, as we get some truly great performances that I’m sure will pop up at Emmy time. Despite an unnecessarily long running time, this is a film that’s definitely worth your time.

As I mentioned, the movie is pretty damn long. It takes a while to get going, and the first half in particular was just okay. When the film is focused on the actual fight that these guys endure, it’s quite riveting. The problem is the first half spends a lot of time with Ned’s various relationships, and this aspect just didn’t grab me. We certainly get a good insight into who this guy is, his past insecurities, and Mark Ruffalo knocks it out of the park performance wise, but the other characters just weren’t all that interesting. Ned develops a romantic relationship with Felix, played by Matt Bomer. Bomer does a decent job, but every time the movie focused on them, I wasn’t into it. Felix was just a bland character.

Ned’s primary conflict in the film is actually with best friend Bruce, played wonderfully by Taylor Kitsch. Whenever they argued about what steps to take in the organization, I was glued to the screen, but their personal moments outside of work weren’t all that interesting. They also squeeze Julia Roberts into this as the doctor who treats the majority of HIV/AIDS patients. Roberts does a good job, but a lot of her scenes felt very unnecessary and forced. The most compelling relationship in the movie was between Ned and his brother, played perfectly by Alfred Molina. I wanted to see much more of this, although their storyline does have a highly emotional payoff.

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The second half is where the movie really kicks into high gear. It’s all about Ned, and his battles with just about everybody. Ned is almost a complete madman, and makes no bones about his opinions and passion for raising awareness. It was fascinating to see a gay activist film where the primary character is fighting more with his allies, then with the general public. This is where the film really brings the tension. Aside from Ruffalo’s Ned, the film is sprinkled with great supporting characters, including Jim Parsons as Tommy, who I felt was the heart of the film, but in a very subtle way. Parsons really nailed it. Joe Mantello plays Mickey, who’s sort of just there throughout the whole film, but there’s one sequence in particular where he completely breaks down, and gives one hell of a performance. I don’t cover the Emmy’s, but I can’t imagine Mantello not getting attention. It’s one of those scenes that knocks you on your ass.

Every scene in the second half has a character giving a big speech, or completely breaking down emotionally. It’s almost as if it was a constant barrage of crisis moments. While this is a strength of the film, it’s also one of its biggest weaknesses. It’s complete overload, and extremely repetitive. While all these moments are well written, they are essentially saying the same thing over and over again, but with different words.

If you do see this film, heed this warning – it’s nothing but a barrage of devastating gut punches, just relentless. While that works for the most part, it does get a tad emotionally manipulative at times. The Normal Heart is definitely worth seeing for a lot of intense individual moments, and some truly outstanding performances, especially Mark Ruffalo, who may even give the performance of his career.

Rating: 7 out of 10 (Good)

Daniel Cohen is the hard-boiled Film Editor for the Pop Break. Besides reviews, Daniel writes box office predictions, Gotham reviews and Oscar coverage. He can also be found on the Breakcast. If Daniel was sprayed by Scarecrow's fear toxin, it would be watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen on a non-stop loop.