Angels In America (Miniseries) [retro review]

“Nothing unknown is unknowable.”

The Scoop: 2003 NR, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson and Justin Kirk

Tagline: No tagline.

Summary Capsule: God has left Heaven and the world is ending… no, this is not Dogma.

Lissa’s Rating: Good for fun and prophet. Get it? Get- oh never mind.

Lissa’s Review: If you watched the Golden Globes at all this year, you probably got pretty sick of the theme music to Angels in America, as all of the acting for a miniseries or made-for-TV movie awards got swept up by the cast of this one. Al Pacino! the ads shouted. Meryl Steep! Emma Thompson! Mary-Louise Parker! Of course Angels in America swept. How could it not with those fine actors?

And they are good. Really good (especially in Pacino’s case.) It’s just too bad their names overshadowed Justin Kirk, Ben Shenkman, and Patrick Wilson, who really had the lead roles.

I wasn’t sure how to treat Angels in America. Is it a movie or a TV series? Does it get an article or a review? I decided to give it the review because it’s based on a play, and is a finished story. It really is a six and a half-hour long movie that never showed on the big screen because people need potty breaks. I do kind of wish it had been shown on the big screen though, because then they might have been forced to cut out a lot and only keep the good stuff.

The year is 1985, and AIDS has just hit, and hit the homosexual community hard. There are three focal points of the plot: the couple of Prior (Kirk) and Louis (Shenkman), a lawyer named Roy Cohn (Pacino) who is after power and helped kill the Rosenburgs, and the married Pitts, Joe (Wilson) and Harper (Parker). Homosexuality is prevalent for all three plotlines. Prior and Louis have been living together for four and half years. Hot-shot Roy has been happily in the closet and sleeping around his entire life. And Mormon Joe is not so happy to be in the closet and would rather have nothing to do with it as he tries to kill off that part of himself. AIDS, religion, work, drugs, law, justice and politics weave in and out of the story lines. It’s a complex tapestry with engaging characters, smooth dialogue, and some deep thoughts twined in between some rather witty jokes.

I was so hooked.

First off, the plotlines here sound so much like something I would write. I’m not trying to say I put myself on the level of a Pulitzer prize winning playwright, but the interplay between the characters and the exploration of variations on similar themes are right up my alley. For instance, how did the four men respond to the issue of being homosexual? Did that change with religion? Vocation? Ambition? (Obviously, the answer was yes.) How did that response affect those around them? How did it affect their response to AIDS? I loved the characters, particularly Prior and Lou (even if I wanted to smack Lou half the time). The dialogue and interactions rang true, and the first half of the film was absolutely brilliant and I couldn’t turn it off.

Then Prior had a vision and an angel appeared to him.

Oooookaaay.

Now, I’m fairly religious and believe me, the thought of an angel appearing to a gay man with AIDS seems pretty much in line with God’s way of thinking. I mean, His son was a carpenter, not a king. In the mid-1980’s, gay man with AIDS was about as low on the social totem pole as you can get. Plus Prior was the kind of person you could imagine God picking out — gentle, loving, and pretty sincere. Prior as the chosen prophet? Okay. That works for…

Wait a minute. Prophet?

This is where the movie started falling apart. Prophet? What happened to the storyline? Weren’t we on Earth and following people in pretty real situations? Why are we suddenly having prophets?

And WHAT is going on with this angel plotline? I mean, seriously? God has left Heaven, and the angels want humans to enter a state of immobility because it’s our progress that rents Heaven and sent God away? Either (a) I don’t get it, or (b) I don’t want to get it. I think it’s a little bit of both.

The problem wasn’t the incorporation of a supernatural plotline or delving into religion. The problem was that it started getting weird without basis. I did not get the entire angel plotline, and I couldn’t quite make out what intended message was supposed to be. Especially since nothing ever came of Prior’s visions. Roy Cohn started hallucinating Ethyl Rosenburg, but that was pretty understandable and made sense. It accomplished something. I never understood what was intended by the Prior being designated the next prophet.

A lot of people go on about the cinematography in these sections, but I didn’t think it was so great. Maybe I was being too harsh, holding a made-for-tv-movie up to real movie standards, but I thought a lot of the effects looked pretty cheesy. That, and the angel REALLY annoyed me with the way she spoke. Wasn’t too amazed by Emma Thompson in this one, although she did look really pretty.

But even as the angel plotline came to a more prominent place in the story, the other plots and other conflicts still received screen time. And as long as the plot is on Earth, the movie is wonderful. There are some intensely moving scenes, particularly between Louis and Prior. Louis eventually leaves Prior because he can’t cope with AIDS. The pain of that decision for both of them is so poignantly portrayed, especially the first time Louis tries to talk to Prior after the desertion, that I was just floored. In fact, the whole subject of homosexuality was handled with a great balance between tastefulness and daring. There are no lurid sex scenes, and the only thing that REALLY grossed me out was when one half of a couple peed with the door open while talking to his lover, and then DIDN’T WASH HIS HANDS. That was so gross.

The second half of the movie also introduces the flowery speeches. When I was in seventh grade, I used to think that writing deeply meant using complex imagery and big words. I’m not saying that this was as ineffective as I was in seventh grade, but ever since then when I hear speeches like that, I think of my seventh grade social studies papers. I was thinking of being thirteen a lot during the last two chapters.

So much of the movie is so powerful and so dynamic (even the angel plotline fits that description) that the ending is a total let-down. The characters break the fourth wall and address the audience directly. What has been an excellent movie ends with an epilogue delivered (literally) lecture style. All I have to say is that if you’re going to do this, that end speech had better pack one heck of a punch, and this one didn’t. I was very much reminded of after-school cartoons where they characters would give the lesson of the day (except for the Animaniacs, who were actually funny doing it. Of course, none of their lessons made sense, either). It was just such a flat way to end the story. However, I suspect it was lifted word-for-word from the play, and it may have worked much better on stage. (It also might have worked much better when the play was written, I don’t know.)

It’s definitely a worthwhile rent, or reason to turn on HBO one night (six nights) when you’ve got nothing better to do. So check it out — nothing to be scared of here.

Intermission!

  • The reference to sex scenes in Ayn Rand novels? In every Ayn Rand novel I’ve read (and I’ve read them all) except for Anthem, the first time two characters have sex it is always quite violent, thus the reference.
  • Meryl Streep was the rabbi? I think that had to have been her best role.
  • Prior has a thing for quoting The Wizard of Oz? (Or Alice in Wonderland? IMDb says that the quote “People come and go so strangely here” is from Alice, but I seem to remember it in Wizard of Oz as well.)
  • Several actors play multiple parts? (This is the case in the play as well.)
  • Coca-Cola product placement?
  • I’m pretty sure IMDb has two casting notes wrong: Ben Shenkman played the Angel Antarctica, and Jeffery Wright played the Angel Europa.
  • When Louis speaks to the Rabbi played by Meryl Streep after his grandmother’s funeral, two of the rabbis also sitting on the cemetery bench are played by Tony Kushner (who wrote the play and screenplay) and children’s book author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, who collaborated on the book Brundibar with Kushner.
  • Jeffrey Wright (Belize/Mr. Lies/the Angel Europa) is the only cast member to have appeared in both the stage and filmed versions.
  • This was Al Pacino’s first television role.

Groovy Quotes

Prior: We have reached a verdict, your honor. This man’s heart is deficient. He loves, but his love is worth nothing.

Prior: I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.
Hannah: Well that’s a stupid thing to do.

Belize: I hate America. I hate this country. Nothing but ideas and stories and people dying. The white cracker who wrote the National Anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word free on a note so high no one could reach it. That was deliberate.

Mr. Lies: Respect the delicate ecology of your delusions.

Roy: All the geeks are Nixon’s appointees.

Harper: Nothing unknown is unknowable.

Hannah: I’m sorry that you’re psychotic but just make an effort.

Roy: No placebos, I’m no good at tests. I’d rather cheat.

Roy: They won’t let you through the front door. You’re a certified and executed traitor.
Ethyl: (shrugs) I’ll walk through a wall.

Prior: This is my ex-lover’s lover’s Mormon mother.
Nurse: Even in New York in the 80’s, that’s weird.

Louis: It’s like a sex scene in an Ayn Rand novel, isn’t it?

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • Philadelphia
  • Dog Day Afternoon
  • It’s My Party
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1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Saturday with Syp: Smash! | Bio Break

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