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MOVIE REVIEW : Bittersweet 'Philadelphia' : Actors Deliver Strong Performances in Socially Conscious Film

December 22, 1993|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

The air of do-goodism hangs like a pall over "Philadelphia," and nothing is so fatal to effective drama. The first major studio release to deal with AIDS, it is all too conscious of time past and opportunities lost, of being years behind the crisis. But one film cannot make up for an industry-wide history of timidity, and in attempting to this one inevitably hampers its own impact.

Still, "Philadelphia" (selected theaters) is a milestone. Though it is going where books, plays, television movies and independent films have all gone before, having a sympathetic major star like Tom Hanks playing a man dying of AIDS could be as powerful societally as having a star like Rock Hudson announcing the same in real life.

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As directed by Jonathan Demme from an original script by Ron Nyswaner, "Philadelphia" fits comfortably into the pattern of mainstream Hollywood socially conscious films, from "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" on racism to "Making Love" on an earlier generation of anti-gay prejudice. Not intended to be subtle, painted in broad, passionate strokes, with the good and bad guys all neatly labeled, it aims to forcefully wring out our emotions like a wet hankie.

Besides being more sophisticated than those predecessors, "Philadelphia" does have a number of points in its favor, especially the affecting performances by Hanks as the AIDS patient and co-star Denzel Washington as the straight lawyer who defends him. But concerned with humanizing the afflicted in terms Middle America can understand, "Philadelphia" is not as worried as it might have been about sacrificing subtlety and nuance to the greater good of a worthwhile cause.

Set with conscious irony in the City of Brotherly Love, where the attorneys have a reputation for legal sharpness (it used to be said that three Philadelphia lawyers were a match for the devil), "Philadelphia" immediately introduces us to two members of that tribe as they meet in a judge's chambers to argue the opposite sides of a case.

Andrew Beckett (Hanks) is the confident practitioner of corporate law, a promising senior associate for Wyatt, Wheeler, Hellerman, Tetlow and Brown, a firm as old line as it sounds. And except for a legal degree and a liking for handsome clothing, he has nothing in common with the glib Joe Miller (Washington).

A personal injury lawyer working out of a one-man office, Miller's motto, no doubt heard on his frequent TV commercials, is "we take no cash unless we have cash justice." Always on the lookout for potential clients, he hands his cards to everyone he meets, from sidewalk Santas to Philadelphia basketball legend Julius Erving. Socially and professionally, he and Beckett couldn't have less in common.

That, it turns out, goes for their sexual orientation as well. Though no one at his firm knows it, Beckett is gay. He heads for a local clinic to have his blood worked up. For more than simply being gay, Andrew Beckett has AIDS.

Beckett also has the kind of idealized support circle only people in movies seem to manage. His parents (Joanne Woodward and Robert Castle, the subject of Demme's "My Cousin Bobby" documentary) are totally supportive, as are his siblings and their spouses. And his lover Miguel (Pedro Almodovar stalwart Antonio Banderas) is as gentle, passionate and understanding as he is good-looking, which is plenty.

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Beckett will need all their support. On the very night he is given an important case and a promotion by firm head Charles Wheeler (Jason Robards), a senior partner notices a Kaposi's sarcoma lesion on Beckett's forehead. Though he tries to pass it off as a racquetball bruise, suspicions are aroused, and after a key file on that big case is mysteriously misplaced, Wheeler claims "something's come over you" and the firm tells him his services are no longer necessary.

Convinced that he has been fired because of AIDS and not incompetence, Beckett decides to sue. Nine lawyers turn him down, and so does the 10th, Joe Miller. Miller, who moves to the far side of his office when Beckett tells him he has AIDS, turns out to be more than a touch homophobic, telling his wife that he doesn't want to even think about going to bed with someone who has more hair on his chest than he does.

Played with Washington's usual assurance, Joe Miller is intended as a kind of mass audience surrogate, someone who shares the fears and prejudices not always admitted in polite society. Having him overcome his homophobia ought to be powerful stuff, but it is typical of "Philadelphia" that it makes this too easy for Miller, providing a convenient and unconvincing scene of anti-gay prejudice as a way for him to understand that all discrimination is equally evil.

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