Sunday, March 24, 2013

Angels in America (2003)

Angels in America is a six hour telefilm made by HBO that is an adaptation of Tony Kushner's mammoth Pulitzer Prize-winning play. It stars Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Mary-Louise Parker, Emma Thompson, Jeffrey Wright, Patrick Wilson, Justin Kirk, Ben Shenkman, and James Cromwell. Many of the actors play more than one role.  In fact, Streep plays an angel, an elderly male rabbi, the ghost of executed spy Ethel Rosenberg, and Hannah Pitt, a middle-aged Mormon mother who moves to New York when her son tells her that he is gay. The film was capably directed by Mike Nichols, who did a nice job opening the film up so that it didn't feel stagy.

There are many instances when Angels in America flashes brilliance. Then there are many moments with theatrical conceits that may have worked well on stage but are schlocky and cumbersome onscreen. The material also bashes people who don't promote the gay agenda, includes a lot of needless profanity, and ironically, is very naive in its theological discussions. Make no mistake -- Angels in America has a leftist agenda which I found to be offensive at times and patronizing at others, and it mocks traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs.

The heart of the story is really good, however. Prior Walter finds out that he has full-blown AIDS, which is a death sentence in 1985. Louis Ironson, Prior's lover, has trouble dealing with the disease and leaves Prior. Meanwhile, young attorney Joe Pitt, married to pill-popping Harper, is fighting his strong homosexual urges. He meets Louis and eventually the two have an affair. When Joe reveals his homosexuality to Hannah, his Mormon mother, she moves to New York but she and Joe remain distant with each other. Hannah meets Prior and forms an unlikely friendship with him. Joe is a professional acquaintance of Roy Cohn, a real-life personality that was vicious to suspected Communists during the McCarthy Senate hearings in the 1950s. He was allegedly largely responsible for the death sentences of spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Cohn, a closeted gay man, finds himself with full-blown AIDS and tells everyone it is liver cancer. He is haunted by visits from the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, and his hospital nurse is the fey Belize, best friend of Prior.

These plot lines explore a lot of important messages: the boundaries and responsibilities of love, the impossibility of being someone besides oneself, questions of faith and despair, the need for acceptance, what is right and moral, and if attitudes can be changed.  Unfortunately, Kushner's screenplay suffers from being overly ambitious and ventures into heavy-handed meta-fiction which brings the film to a standstill. The most successful of these conceits involves Cohn's interaction with the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. There is also an angel that proclaims Prior to be a prophet, though his gifts of prophecy are never revealed in the movie. Harper, Prior, and Hannah all have bizarre interactions with angels that really add nothing to the story. Prior even has a laughable visit to Heaven where he proclaims that God deserted mankind and is never coming back.

The performances are uniformly good, except for the angel played by Emma Thompson -- but that's such a seriously stupid role that I doubt any actor could have emerged unscathed from it. Pacino's Cohn is written to be a vile and nasty character -- and perhaps Cohn truly was. Pacino gives a larger-than-life performance, and somehow finds the humanity in the core of Cohn. Streep excels as Hannah, especially during her scenes with Prior. Harper, played by Parker, annoyed me throughout the film, though admittedly her husband had not been honest with her. Louis was well-played by Shenkman, though I found him unlikable. The best performances were from Wilson as Joe, Wright as Belize, and Kirk as Prior.

Pacino, Streep, Wright, and Parker won Emmys for their work in this production, and Kirk, Shenkman, Wilson, and Thompson were Emmy-nominated. Wright reprises his Tony award-winning performance.

Angels in America would have been a masterpiece had a third of the running time been excised (all the stuff with the literal angels and the demagoguery). The point that should have been more clearly made is that even in the worst of times, angels walk among us -- both natural, as exemplified by Belize, and unlikely, as seen in Hannah. The human interest story here is exceptional but the bloated esoteric material nearly sinks the production. The movie always kept my attention, even when it irritated me. It's a missed opportunity. Grade: B-

I watched Angels in America on DVD on March 18-21, 2013.

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