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movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Philadelphia

Starring: Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington
Director: Jonathan Demme
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 119 Minutes
Release Date: January 1994
Genres: Drama, Gay-Lesbian

*Also starring: Jason Robards, Mary Steenburgen, Antonio Banderas, Joanne Woodward, Ron Vawter, Robert Ridgely, Charles Napier, Roger Corman

Review by Dragan Antulov
2 stars out of 4

There are many movies that are remembered for the wrong reasons, and PHILADELPHIA, 1993 courtroom drama directed by Jonathan Demme, is one of them. Instead being remembered by its own merit, it is only a footnote in a tale about moving 1994 Oscar acceptance speech by Tom Hanks - occasion that inspired a movie by itself (IN & OUT by Frank Oz). And it is really sad, since PHILADELPHIA happened to be the very first big budget Hollywood movie dealing with the AIDS phenomenon. It was also an opportunity for Demme to defend himself from homophobia charges, inspired by the fact that some gay groups didn't like the sexual orientation of the villain in his Oscar-winning masterpiece SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.

This courtroom drama has a plot which is based on the real life event (the fact which the filmmakers at first denied, which, ironically, caused a lawsuit later on). Andrew Beckett (played by Tom Hanks) is a young and brilliant attorney who had just received a promotion in a prestigious Philadelphia law firm, led by his bigoted mentor Charles Wheeler (played by Jason Robards). In the same day, Beckett, who was hiding his homosexuality from co-workers and supervisors, finds out that he had contracted AIDS. Soon, important legal brief vanishes from his possession and he is fired from the law firm because of alleged incompetence. Beckett knows that the real reason is homophobia, so he is ready to start discrimination lawsuit. Unfortunately, few lawyers are ready to take his case. The only exception is Joe Miller (played by Denzel Washington), black ambulance chaser who must overcome his own homophobic prejudices before he begins long legal battle.

Made during the zenith of Political Correctness, in the first year of Clinton presidency, PHILADELPHIA, like many similar "socially conscious" movies, walks on the very fine line between art and propaganda. The screenplay by Ron Nyswaner almost pushes movie across that line, with sometimes annoyingly clear contrast between Good Guys (young, beautiful, talented and heroic gay character plus his slowly evolving attorney) and Bad Guys (old, ugly and bigoted establishment). The attempts to paint some shades of gray (like the scene with the young black gay man and Miller) look somewhat artificial and sometimes it provide unnecessary plot holes. However, this movie is saved by great directorial skill by Demme and great acting performances. Demme, with his superb techniques, small gestures and great use of close-ups allows us to see the plot and characters through banal but all-revealing scenes, like the accidental encounter between Beckett and Miller in the library. The actors, on the other hand, are stealing the show - Tom Hanks won his first "Oscar", and his portrayal of AIDS-stricken man with the passion for life and justice is touching and magnificent in the same time (although some would see his opera singing scene as an emotional overkill). Hanks should also be praised for the great physical effort, because he went on a diet and lost 12 kilograms in order to physically resemble terminally ill AIDS patient as much as possible. His partner Denzel Washington is great too, although his role didn't require such demanding physical requirements. Instead, his character transformation from the bigot into the compassionate human being is portrayed with subtle but very effective actions (like, for example, different levels of physical distance between Beckett and Miller). Other actors are, on the other hand, underused - Jason Robards' character is caricature, Mary Steenburgen as his attorney is capable, and Antonio Banderas is totally wasted as Beckett's lover.

Although Demme's good intentions and his talent should be praised, they aren't enough to make PHILADELPHIA truly exceptional piece of cinema. For the movie that was supposed to be the groundbreaking Hollywood project about AIDS, bigotry and alternative lifestyles, this film is too mainstream and constrained by the content regulations - both the old (which bar kissing between males in mainstream films) and new (which prohibits portrayal of gay characters as nothing less of saintly). Being exposed to the multitude of independent, cable or even TV-movies that, one way or the other, broke such rules, we must conclude that PHILADELPHIA didn't pass the test of time, necessary to achieve the true greatness. But, although overrated, PHILADELPHIA is still a good film.

Copyright 1999 Dragan Antulov

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