Philadelphia (1993) (PG-13)
Jonathan Demme had achieved great critical acclaim with "The Silence of the Lambs" which took the director out of his wheelhouse. Though he manned one of the most influential horror movies to date, it might seem that Demme wasn't completely pleased with his project. Outrage from the LGBT community at the depiction of Buffalo Bill (though it was the same in the book) probably went beneath the director's skin. This is all conjecture, but it would make sense because the very next feature film that Demme directed was "Philadelphia".
The city of brotherly love—this movie begins with many encompassing shots of the streets of Philadelphia, the good and the bad. We see lawyer Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) going head-to-head with Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), another lawyer. Their ludicrous and hyperbolic arguments over something relatively meaningless proves to us, the viewer, that they are both tenacious and brilliant at their jobs.
Andrew seems to be sick, though it isn't quite clear in the first few minutes what his illness is. Later on, it's revealed, quite matter-of-factly that the disease is AIDS and this is the point that the movie pivots on.
Andrew is given the keys to one of his law firm's biggest cases and told not to screw up. He delivers and files his report, leaving it for his secretary before collapsing in a fit of nausea. While at the hospital, Andrew is called and told that his paperwork has gone missing and the deadline is fast approaching in a matter of minutes.
Months later, Andrew walks into Joe's office and proclaims that he wants to sue his law firm, one of the most prestigious law firms in all of Philadelphia.
"Philadelphia" is part court room drama and part fluff piece of about civil rights. It has its moments of wonderful distance from sentimentality, though it does indulge in the John Williams string strumming tendencies. Howard Shore's score is a complicated mess that is incoherent at best and the film is structured with most actors looking directly at the camera as if the audience is a passerby, Joe Miller, Andrew Beckett, and a jury all at once. Basically the film shouldn't work.
And yet it does work and it works so remarkably well because of the things previously mentioned. Its style is a little hard to get used to, but by the end of the movie, we understand why it was chosen for "Philadelphia" to be shot in hyper-close-up with eyes diving right into the lens of the camera.
Though AIDS is the topic of conversation in the courtroom, the movie itself is much more about prejudice. Joe Miller is a self-admitting homophobe, so imagine how much he has to grow as a character to represent Andrew Beckett, a job that he turns down on first pass because he realizes that he would be biased.
What the film does is slowly show Andrew's decay into a gaunt, hallow figure with lesions and faded hair color. It's not pleasant, but even so, Demme was criticized again for being told that he was sugarcoating the symptoms of AIDS and the side effects of the drugs used in that time to treat the disease.
While having a lead (who won an Oscar) portraying a gay man in a committed relationship (Antonio Banderas plays Andrew's lover Miguel), the film itself isn't very gay. It makes the conscious effort to show homosexuals as people, but does allow them to keep their distance from the camera. The amount of homophobia is quite something in the movie (always seen as bad), but the number of actual gay people seen who get to speak and say something important...hmm, not so much.
Don't get me wrong, there are moments that go beyond anything else attempted so far in "Philadelphia"; but then again sometimes it goes on just too far. Take a scene in which Andrew tells Joe his appreciation for opera...it's a nice scene, but it extends just too long, barely.
The moments in which the ideas are more prevalent than the emotions are the moments in which "Philadelphia" is great. The string-pulling moments can be a little distracting.
The drama itself is quite good because it plays out like a courtroom drama instead of the character and relational work that it actually is.
In the end, we do have to wonder about certain plot holes in the script; yet Tom Hanks and company are so good at their jobs that it's easy to forgive much of the dialogue and plot issues. Though Hanks won the Oscar for the movie, he is never outdone by any of his co-stars.
And yes, "Philadelphia" is a tender movie. It is sweet and almost too sad to cry at, but the tears do come and without much shame.
It's a teary, wonderful piece, and it will live on for a long time...not just for its performances; but for how it bravely tackled an issue that no other mainstream movie had done.
It would seem like Jonathan Demme's penance is much more than just that.
Posted by Micah Jones