'The Normal Heart' review: Ryan Murphy's labor of love is unfocused at times

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the-normal-heart-jim-parsons-joe-mantello.jpgHBO Films' "The Normal Heart" is truly a labor of love. Ryan Murphy directed the TV version and it wouldn't have gotten made without him. After sitting in development limbo for decades, Murphy put up his own funds for the rights and recruited an all-star cast to fill the roles. His passion for the project is readily apparent.

"The Normal Heart" is an adaptation of the 1985 Larry Kramer play of the same name centered around the early days of the AIDS crisis. The story is loosely based on Kramer's own experiences as one of the founders of the advocacy group the Gay Men's Health Crisis. In the story, that role is the character of Ned Weeks, played by Mark Ruffalo. Ned is the biggest champion for the cause out of all his friends, but his passion at times is misconstrued. So much so that his colleagues think he is hindering their fundraising abilities and ultimately decide to part ways. Ruffalo nails the role of the uptight, headstrong Weeks perfectly.

Julia Roberts plays wheelchair-bound polio survivor, Emma, one of the only doctors searching for a cure for the deadly and mysterious "gay cancer." Roberts comes off slightly cold in the beginning, but opens up in hour two. Rounding out the GMHC are Taylor Kitsch, who you see a side of you've never seen in any of his previous work; Jim Parsons, who reprises the role he played in the 2011 Broadway revival; and Joe Mantello, who played Weeks in the stage revival. They are all excellent in their roles and perfectly cast, but it is Matthew Bomer in the role of Felix who captivates you until the very end.

Bomer captures your attention instantly as a closeted pop culture reporter for the New York Times, shines as he and Ned fall in love and blows all the other performances out of the water as he fights for his life. 

The actors are the best thing about "The Normal Heart." While the play is focused and strong, some things get lost in translation in the movie adaptation. Murphy begins the film with a lengthy and lavish trip to Fire Island and then jumps right into a hospital scene where Ned meets Emma. The wouldn't be bad except that it leaves the viewer without enough knowledge about the characters to get a true feel for them and form the connection needed to stay invested.

The film hits its stride in the second hour, with killer scenes between Ned and his homophobic brother (Alfred Molina) and several touching scenes between Ruffalo and Bomer in key moments, but ultimately the viewer is left wanting more.
 
"The Normal Heart" airs Sunday, May 25 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.
Photo/Video credit: HBO Films