Angels In America Movie Review

There are times when Mike Nichols' long-awaited HBO adaptation of Tony Kushner's award-riddled Reagan-era AIDS epic play, Angels in America, just about achieves that grand moment of completion that it's been striving for, and the failure to do so is almost heartbreaking. There are numerous reasons why Kushner's play has never been brought to film before, despite serving for many years as the landmark theatrical statement on AIDS in the 1980s - the lyrical counterpoint to the factual reportage of the book and film And the Band Played On - and highest among them is its length. Nichols' version takes the play at its original, somewhat off-putting size, divided up into two three-hour parts, and does pretty much the best with its material that one could ask for; any problems with the finished product are likely Kushner's own.

Part one, "Millennium Approaches" is full of ominous portents, plague and destruction, the rampant spread of AIDS in the chilly clime of '80s conservatism, while the second, "Perestroika" makes the political issues bandied about earlier in the film devastatingly personal. The story runs from 1985 to 1990 and takes in a broad sweep of characters, but not nearly as many as other writers would have packed in, simply to give a broader demographic sampling. Central to the film is Prior Walter (Justin Kirk), a 30-year-old AIDS sufferer whose boyfriend Louis (Ben Shenkman) leaves him in an astonishingly heartless manner, only to take up soon after with recently uncloseted U.S. attorney Joe Pitt (Patrick Wilson). Left mostly to his own devices, with only his friend Belize (Jeffery Wright) to help, as Walter gets sicker, he begins to have visions of an angel (Emma Thompson, odd, arrogant and completely captivating), determined to make him a prophet, claiming that God has deserted the world and that humans are at fault.

Meanwhile, Louis, an over-intellectualized moral coward and firebrand liberal, has difficulty coming to grips with Joe's Reaganite Mormon beliefs, before even knowing that Joe is a putative protégé of Roy Cohn. Playing the only real-life character in the film, Pacino not-surprisingly brings a hefty side of ham to his role, sensible enough given what a melodramatic monster Cohn was. The most complex and intriguing character in Angels in America, Cohn was an anti-Communist zealot whose proudest achievement was ensuring that Ethel Rosenberg was executed for treason, and not given life. But he was also a gay man who loathed his own kind; in one scene riveting in its cold-blooded logic and near-insane denial, Cohn explains to his doctor (James Cromwell) how he is not a "homosexual," he is a man who has sex with men, because a homosexual could not get the president on the phone (or, "Better, the president's wife"), but Roy Cohn can. Therefore, Roy Cohn is not a homosexual. Then he bullies the doctor into diagnosing him with liver cancer instead of what he actually has, AIDS.

Given how many Big Issues are being thrown around in Angels in America like confetti - AIDS, the Reagan years, the Rosenberg case, Mormonism, the fate and promise of America, acceptance of homosexuals in society, religious prophecy - it comes as no surprise that although one begins to expect a grand unification theory to be presented, a clear-cut one never seems to be proffered. Rather, it is content with a number of small conclusions, which don't seem in the end to merit the weight and grandeur of all that the viewer has undergone in the interim - especially Prior's millennial angelic visions, which are initially interesting but ultimately a narrative dead-end.

Angels in America is littered though with scraps of genius and joy, especially the lyrical interludes featuring Harper Pitt (a divinely loony Mary-Louise Parker), already teetering on the verge of nervous collapse before finding out that her husband Joe is gay, but who escapes for a time afterward into a full-fledged fantasy world, complete with an imaginary angelic travel agent who can take her anywhere she wants. Parker's off-kilter performance is pitch-perfect and makes her every scene count, regardless of how little she ultimately fits in to the big picture of the film.

Unfortunately, Kushner deals heavily in stereotypes, especially with Louis and Belize, the former being close to a caricature of a neurotic and self-hating Jew, while Belize is all flamboyant boa-wearing sass and salty homespun wisdom, definitely a wonderful character, but an intellectually idealized and near-angelic one. Contrasting very sharply with Wright's perfection is Meryl Streep as Hannah Pitt, who could have been an easy target for satire, the strict Mormon mom come to New York from Utah in order to get Joe back on the straight and narrow. Gruff and wry, she gives the film a good dash of stiff spine, refusing to be stereotyped and, when Walter tells her that he's always relied on the kindness of strangers, bluntly replies, "That seems a stupid thing to do."

Heavily (and correctly) lauded, but possibly quickly forgotten, Angels in America is a landmark piece of work that stretches too far and flies too high, but even when plummeting back to earth, makes for a riveting and heady spectacle.

The bare-bones DVD release includes the film on two discs, in widescreen format, with no special features.

Cast & Crew

Director :

Producer : Celia D. Costas


Angels In America Rating

" OK "

Rating: NR, 2003


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