Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Philadelphia (1993)

Tom Hanks as an AIDS Victim Who Fights the Establishment

For a film maker who thrives on taking chances, "Philadelphia" sounds like the biggest gamble of all. As the first high-profile Hollywood film to take the AIDS plague seriously, Jonathan Demme's latest work has stubborn preconceptions to overcome as well as enormous potential to make waves. What it does not have, despite the fine acting and immense decency that give it substance, is much evidence of Mr. Demme's usual daring. Maybe that's not surprising: it isn't easy to leave fingerprints when you're wearing kid gloves.

Hollywood's past reluctance to take on AIDS isn't strictly a matter of cowardice. This subject, with all its anguished inevitability, does not easily lend itself to run-of-the-mill movie methods. If the theater has led the way, with works as different as "Jeffrey" and "Angels in America," it also has more freedom to experiment with format. Conventional wisdom has it that a big-budget film needs reassuring familiarity if it means to play at the multiplex, even if Mr. Demme proved otherwise with his bracingly tough "Silence of the Lambs."

If the dread-disease drama has often been relegated to television, there, too, AIDS has proved daunting: HBO's attention-getting "And the Band Played On" was a much more tepid undertaking than "Philadelphia" turns out to be. Unlike that obviously hamstrung dramatization, "Philadelphia" mostly succeeds in being forceful, impassioned and moving, sometimes even rising to the full range of emotion that its subject warrants. But too often, even at its most assertive, it works in safely predictable ways.

"Philadelphia," which has the year's most elegant and apt movie title, begins with great promise and with a reminder of what the unfettered Mr. Demme can do. A stirring montage of Philadelphia street life, accompanied by a mournfully beautiful new Bruce Springsteen song, offers a resounding sense of vitality and communal obligation. (The film is suffused with haunting music, with operatic arias used much too pointedly in several places and Neil Young's title song floating gently through its final scene.) Mr. Demme knows how to breathe both hope and frustration into the promise of brotherly love.

Soon afterward, Mr. Demme shows an equally impressive tact as he introduces Andrew Beckett, the lawyer played by Tom Hanks. First seen defending a construction company accused of spreading pestilent dust, Andrew is next shown visiting a clinic for AIDS treatment. The film attaches no fanfare to this information, and it spares the audience a melodramatic scene in which Andrew's AIDS is first diagnosed. Likewise, it presents his mother (Joanne Woodward) as determinedly brave and well aware of her son's situation. With these touches, the film promises not to exploit its subject in maudlin ways, and that is a promise it keeps.

Mr. Demme and his screenwriter, Ron Nyswaner, elect to dramatize their material by presenting AIDS as a cause as well as a personal calamity. So "Philadelphia" gives Andrew a tangible grievance. First, he is established as an ambitious, gung-ho young corporate lawyer. "Outstanding!" exclaims Andrew, upon hearing that the firm has landed an important account. Next, he is seen arousing suspicion among the firm's equally hearty senior partners. "What's that on your forehead, pal?" one of them asks, staring at a Kaposi's sarcoma lesion.

"Oh, that!" says Andrew, with the forced heartiness that hides his real nature, and as such is the habit of a lifetime. "I got whacked in the head with a racquetball." Nobody believes him.

When Andrew is summarily fired on a trumped-up charge of incompetence, the film gives him a mission: to sue his former firm for wrongful termination and to fight the bigotry faced by people with AIDS. Admirable as this is in the abstract, it steers the movie in exactly the wrong direction. "Philadelphia" winds up centered on the courtroom, devoting an inordinate amount of time to what should only have been this story's MacGuffin, a minor but galvanizing plot device. The courtroom scenes, which lack suspense and too often have a soapbox tenor, will not tell the audience anything it doesn't already know.

A much more interesting side of "Philadelphia" depicts the relationship between Andrew and Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), his anti-gay, ambulance-chasing lawyer. ("We take no cash unless we get cash justice for you," Joe informs one potential client.) Reluctant to take Andrew's case at first, and flaunting his fears and prejudices with his doctor and his wife, Joe changes gratifyingly during the course of the story. Mr. Hanks gives a brave, stirring, tremendously dignified performance as a man slowly wasting away. But Mr. Washington, who is also very fine as the small-minded shyster who becomes a crusading hero, has the better role.

It shouldn't have been that way. But Mr. Nyswaner's screenplay allows Andrew almost nothing in the way of individual characteristics. It makes him a gay Everyman whose love of opera -- awkwardly underscored in a scene that shows the audience how little it really knows about Andrew -- hardly qualifies as a distinctive trait. Andrew's domestic relationship with Miguel (Antonio Banderas) is presented so sketchily that it barely seems real.

The screenplay's tendency to evade and overgeneralize is not helped by the depiction of gay men as gentle souls, straight men as bigots, and Andrew's large family as a monolithic, enlightened entity. Andrew's father: "We're incredibly proud of you." Andrew's mother: "You get in there and you fight for your rights." Andrew: "Gee, I love you guys."

Most of "Philadelphia" is a lot better than that. Neither Mr. Demme's attention to detail nor his talent for tight, urgent storytelling has let him down. He has assembled a large, expertly cast group of actors to fill out the film's background, among them Ron Vawter as the law firm's one conscience-stricken partner, Jason Robards as its overbearing patriarch, Anna Deavere Smith as an astute paralegal and Robert Castle (the priest who is Mr. Demme's cousin, and the subject of his "Cousin Bobby") as Andrew's father.

Ms. Woodward is especially memorable in a brief but luminous appearance. And Mary Steenburgen has the potentially interesting role of a ruthless, sarcastic defense attorney determined to wear down a now-frail Andrew when he gets to the courtroom. But even here, the film pulls its punches. After conducting a particularly grueling cross-examination, Ms. Steenburgen is allowed to acquit herself by muttering "I hate this case!"

"Philadelphia" may be equivocal in its attitudes, but Mr. Demme will never make a film that lacks visual color. Tak Fujimoto, Craig McKay and Kristi Zea, who have collaborated with the director before as cinematographer, editor and production designer, respectively, give the film a warm, believable look and a vigorous pace. Mention should also be made of Carl Fullerton's makeup, which makes sure that Mr. Hanks's transformation from robust lawyer to visibly suffering AIDS patient will not soon be forgotten.

In the end, thanks to such effects and to the simple grace of Mr. Hanks's performance, this film does accomplish what it means to. "Philadelphia" rises above its flaws to convey the full urgency of its difficult subject, and to bring that subject home.

"Philadelphia" is rated PG-13 (Parents Strongly Cautioned). It includes mild profanity and brief nudity. Philadelphia Directed by Jonathan Demme; written by Ron Nyswaner; director of photography, Tak Fujimoto; edited by Craig McKay; music by Howard Shore; production designer, Kristi Zea; produced by Edward Saxon and Mr. Demme; released by Tri-Star Pictures. At the Gemini, Second Avenue and 64th Street, Manhattan. Running time: 119 minutes. This film is rated PG-13. Andrew Beckett . . . Tom Hanks Joe Miller . . . Denzel Washington Sarah Beckett . . . Joanne Woodward Charles Wheeler . . . Jason Robards Belinda Conine . . . Mary Steenburgen Miguel Alvarez . . . Antonio Banderas Bud Beckett . . . Robert Castle Bob Seidman . . . Ron Vawter Anthea Buton . . . Anna Deavere Smith

Published: December 22, 1993

Philadelphia (1993) - Movie Trailer

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