Hanks is great, but 'Philadelphia' suffers from its good intentions

January 14, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Philadelphia" is kind, humane, polite, earnest, heartfelt and decent. Too bad it isn't very good.

Much hyped as the first major studio picture about AIDS, as well as the personal project of critics' favorite Jonathan ("Silence of the Lambs") Demme, the film features a brilliant job by Tom Hanks, but not a lot else. Considered strictly as drama, the story somehow never achieves the clarity or the incisiveness necessary to illuminate this dark plague and the multiplicity of issues it raises.

Hanks, in a beautiful, gentle performance, plays Andrew Beckett, a hard-charging, seemingly well-adjusted young lawyer in a powerful establishment law firm in the City of Brotherly Love, surely the joke-irony meant in the title. He's on his way up and the movie begins with the ritual of acceptance in that world: We watch as the firm's elders confer the rank of partner on him.

But right away, the movie's off track: it's too movie-ish. The partners -- Jason Robards at his most conventionally gruff is the main man -- have been cast for a certain fleshy complacency in their pink, smooth faces. They look like George Grosz caricatures of corpulent, bourgeoise venality in Weimar, Germany. One glance at them tells us all we need to know, and the movie never surprises us.

When one of them notices a bruise on Hanks' face, of course he sniffs greedily at it, like a pig rooting after a truffle. Hanks answers with a lie, which the movie never quite deals with: a racquetball injury. He continues to lie, claiming he's in perfect health, but it soon becomes clear, as he loses weight, begins to miss work or work at home, that he's A) dying of AIDS and B) gay. This discomfits the partners, who are soon whispering sinisterly in the hallways. Ultimately, a key document turns up missing and Hanks, a few months ago the golden boy, is dismissed for incompetence.

Of course he feels he's being dismissed because of sexual orientation and health condition, patently discriminatory, and so he seeks legal representation, and we are given to understand that he is unsuccessful -- fear of his firm's power and loathing for him and his disease -- until at last he meets Denzel Washington's semi-shyster Joe Miller, a storefront, low-end advertiser about as far away from the hallowed halls of big-time corporate law as possible. Alas, he's a homophobe. Yet the expectations of that promising setup are never fully delivered. There's too much phony, saintly nobility drifting through the proceedings and not enough drama. For example, the clash between Hanks and Washington, the homosexual and the homophobe, isn't stark or energetic. Rather quickly, Washington realizes what a wonderful man Hanks is and puts a curb on his fears; the movie would have been far more pungent if the hostility between them had been a major factor, leaking out at odd moments, until a final resolution.

Equally romanticized is Hanks' family, filmed in the golden glow of Nostalgiavision and completely, blindly supportive. Joanne Woodward plays Andy's shamelessly idealized parent as as if she's Mother Courage herself, and his sister warmly allows him to hold her newborn child close to his scabbed-over face. Again, how much more tragic and compelling if one of them "didn't get it" and rejected him violently.

Then there's Beckett's completely undernourished love relationship with Miguel Alvarez (portrayed by the beautiful Antonio Banderas, the star and icon of so many Pedro Almodovar dramas). Again, however, we're left with images of beauty, a sort of TV-commercial-style shorthand that evokes but doesn't dramatize love. It's hopelessly sentimentalized and unbelievable. More phony nobility. Clearly, Demme is trying to deal with the disease in context of a familiar and audience-accessible form: the family soap opera. The last thing he wants is bitter, leathery boys pugnaciously proclaiming their fury. Everything is soft and muzzy.

The core of "Philadelphia's" mediocrity, however, is its choice of the trial as the structure of the drama. It's a timeless device, well used or ill, and here rather more ill than well. Demme suddenly seems to consider himself too "serious" to stoop to cheap tricks, cheesy reversals, savage interrogation and all those staples of legal melodrama. But frankly the film could have used a few cheap tricks, etc.

The film vividly dramatizes the disappearance of the document, and then the case seems initially to be structured around that fairly clear issue. Demme goes to considerable lengths to establish the whats and whens of the event -- and then completely loses interest in it, as if it's too cheap. But if it's too cheap, why raise the issue in the first place?

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