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Angels in America
2003 - Not Rated - 360 Mins.
Director: Mike Nichols
Producer: HBO
Written By: Tony Kushner (based on his play)
Starring: Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, Mary-Louise Parker, Ben Shenkman
Review by: John Ulmer
Prior expectations can make or break a movie. Oh, how they broke this one!

I thought this movie was going to be about angels visiting America. I didn't like what I saw in the adverts, but Al Pacino and Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson were in it! By George, I had to see it! To not do so would be a sin, right?

Too bad they don't stress on the advertisements that this is arguably Al Pacino's worst performance since "Gigli" (wasn't that just last year?), and one of the worst of his entire career. Not only that, but the film barely even features Pacino, Streep and Thompson at all in its six-and-a-half-hour running time. I don't mind that, but when you advertise actors all over a film to draw mass markets, don't exaggerate. It's called false marketing.

Instead of the top-notch cast, we are treated to Ben Shenkman and some other various actors portraying gay man in Reagan-era America, circa 1985. Essentially their various stories intertwined through one main idea (AIDs and homosexuality in the 80s), the film quickly becomes strange and tiring thanks to a truly mind-shattering 6.5-hour running time.

This isn't badly made. I'm sure many people will enjoy it. But for me, it was too strange. I'm not a fan of "Brazil" for the same reason--I just don't always like very weird films. It's not that I have a closed mind--I often try. It's just a little trait inside me. I get turned off by them as soon as they start trying to twist and turn the world upside down. (There are rare exceptions where I like this, such as in "Adaptation," but more often than not I am disappointed.)

The movie is beautifully shot, for what it's worth, and that is why I give it a recommendation--and that alone. I can't commend the performances in this film because they're all borderline mediocre. In one of the earliest scenes--the introduction of Al Pacino's character--I had to wonder if this was the same great actor who brought Michael Corleone and Tony Montana to life in the past few decades.

Ray Cohn (Pacino) is a hot-shot "up yours" lawyer--you know, the kind who make fun of you behind your back and think they're "all that." (Not that I've ever met a lawyer like that before--I just see 'em in the movies portrayed this way. Big cliché, or small one? Grisham writes lawyers this way, so I guess it has to be true, right?)

The movie's primary focus, as I mentioned before, are its two leads: Prior Walter (Justin Kirk) and Louis Ironson (Ben Shenkman), two gay lovers hiding in a semi-closed closet, only open to their close friends and family. Louis, a Jew, is shunned upon by his family at his grandmother's funeral. And when Prior reveals that he is infected with AIDS, everything goes wrong. Louis leaves Prior for a closeted homo, Joe Pitt (Patrick Wilson). Joe's wife, Harper (Mary-Louise Parker), has no idea about his homosexuality--until he confesses and leaves her for Louis, who has now turned into a sort of carefree homosexual. When he's having sex with an anonymous guy in a park and their "protection" breaks, he doesn't care. "Go ahead, infect me," he says. This scene made me want to vomit, to be honest.

Meanwhile, Ray also becomes infected with AIDS, and tries to keep everything a secret between him and his intimidated doctor (James Cromwell in the best performance of the film). There are also a few angels who seem to visit these people in their hallucinatory dreams, but these entire sequences are extremely strange, and turned off myself and two other viewers from enjoying the film at all. They're beautifully filmed, but little else.

This is a six-and-a-half-hour film, so to divulge into the extended plot seems pointless. I've basically gone through the entire first half of the program, leaving the second half up to you in case you feel a need to watch it.

The movie fails on most of my own personal expectations. As I mentioned earlier, this is simply one of Pacino's weakest roles and performances. His character is one giant cliché, Pacino knew it, and so he tried his best to bring him alive. It doesn't work. He is, for better use of a word, a complete jerk. But he's a pointless jerk, and the introduction is extraordinarily weak--we see him answering phones and swearing at people. I started wondering if Pacino was purposefully acting badly. This is simply an awful performance from such a great actor. De Niro--Pacino's primary competition in most "greatest actor" polls--might have been able to pull this off a bit better, but the script is just too weak for either of the two great actors to be able to do much of anything about it.

The film is directed by Mike Nichols ("Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"), which is surprising, because the film is essentially empty. Tony Kushner adapted the screenplay from his own stage play, and at a whopping six point five hours it still fails to (a) develop characters and (b) provide any interesting scenes. It just trudges on and on, really losing steam in the final act.

I liked this film, to a certain degree. I liked the beautiful cinematography. I liked most of the first half. I liked the way it felt more like a film than a miniseries, in most respects. I liked a visitation scene by Emma Thompson in which she has "holy sex" with a gay man. This was all fine.

I didn't like the film's emptiness, its lack of character and story progression, the false advertising of Al Pacino and Meryl Streep, the bizarre dream sequences, and I especially didn't like the preachy homosexual subtext of the entire motion picture. It's too long, too underdeveloped, too weird, and too darn politically correct.

But if I were to grade this film on its technical aspects, it would get a complete five-star rating. Excellent set design and lighting. Very eerie and bizarre--despite my personal dislike for such sequences.

For its cinematography, and that alone, "Angels in America" gets a recommendation. The reason it didn't get a full five-star rating should be pretty apparent to you by now if you've managed to read this far, which I somewhat doubt. It's pretty depressing to know you're in a minority--especially when it comes to stuff like this.
Movie Guru Rating
Average but solid.  Fans of this genre will probably enjoy it.  Others may not. Average but solid.  Fans of this genre will probably enjoy it.  Others may not. Average but solid.  Fans of this genre will probably enjoy it.  Others may not.
  3 out of 5 stars

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