1993 Directed by Jonathan Demme. Starring Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Jason Robards, Mary Steenburgen, Antonio Banderas, Ron Vawter, Charles Napier.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Jan. 14, 1994
With so many hopes, expectations and pressures riding on the success of Philadelphia, billed as the “first mainstream motion picture to deal with AIDS,” it's a wonder that the movie found any coherent voice at all. But with so much invested in Philadelphia's breakthrough importance, the filmmakers seem to have forgotten to tell a great and original story and, instead, relied on the more familiar disease-of-the-week formula common to TV drama. I have no particular problem with generic pieces either. If Philadelphia were as good a disease-of-the-week movie as Demme's Silence of the Lambs was a good suspense thriller, there would be no problem with Demme's adoption of formulaic conventions. But Silence was a standout example of its chosen genre and Philadelphia simply is not. Still, Philadelphia is comprised of enough “little moments” that provide all the richness and grace we need to get us past the film's more inelegant moments. Primary here are the transcendent lead performances by Hanks and Washington, both of whom are, at all times, exciting to watch. Much of the screenplay is devoted to the detailing of instances of AIDS discrimination and a lengthy courtroom trial. Despite the box office draw of the film's stars, I suspect that Philadelphia's statement-making is going to wind up preaching primarily to the choir. Rather than the material conveyed through dialogue and speeches, the movie's greatest educational tool is its physical depiction of the ravages of AIDS and its toll on the body. AIDS becomes the operative villain in this story, especially since the ostensible bad guys at the law firm who fire Hanks at the beginning are such flat villains that all their courtroom huffing and puffing become just so much hot air rather than the unconstrained outbursts of fear and prejudice. One has to wonder about Demme's choice of this topical subject after the protests that met his inclusion of the homosexual serial murderer in Silence of the Lambs. Certainly there has always been an inherent topicality to Demme's films, from Caged Heat to Cousin Bobby, and, thus, Demme's choice of subject matter here can hardly be seen as a purely reactive decision. Yet it's strikingly odd that despite seeing Hanks display physical affection with family members and other characters we hardly see so much as a touch pass between Hanks and his devoted lover Banderas. No doubt this is due primarily to fears of scaring away mass audiences but, then, after an extended opera scene (a scene whose poetic impact misfires badly), one is forced to wonder just what Philadelphia's gay agenda exactly is. Still, there are so many wonderful “small moments” punctuating the film: the ordinariness of routine blood lab visits, the cool soundtrack (featuring a tune written expressly for the movie by Bruce Springsteen that accompanies the film's evocative opening credit sequence), Joanne Woodward practically stealing the whole show in two brief sequences, etc. Yes, despite obstacles, Philadelphia found its voice, but it's comprised of too much melody and too little wail.