If they gave awards for good intentions alone, Jonathan Demme’s mantle would be full. Philadelphia is the first mainstream Hollywood movie about AIDS, and it carries a formidable burden: It’s not every film that risks alienating both gays and homophobes.Should one preach to the converted, or should one try to win people over? Demme (who is hetero) and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (who is gay) have made Philadelphia with a wide eye towards the homophobes in the house. The movie is a primer on tolerance, and it tries to cover so many bases that it wears itself out dramatically. Yet, despite its general lack of emotional directness, this is still a moving and honest work, a lucid (if not quite impassioned) plea for common decency.

Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks), a rising young lawyer, is closing in on a senior partnership at his prosperous firm. In the first of several dark ironies, a lesion appears on Andrew’s forehead the day he learns of his promotion. Andrew has known for some time that he has AIDS, but his associates (including his boss, played with maximum sleaze by Jason Robards) don’t even know he’s gay. Apparently it hasn’t been an issue. But it becomes one. When Andrew’s condition grows too advanced to conceal, one of his files on an important case suddenly disappears. Though it is eventually recovered, Andrew is fired for “incompetence.”

That Andrew has in fact been fired for being a gay man with AIDS is obvious to everyone except Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), an ambulance-chaser and admitted homophobe. When Andrew taps Joe to represent him in a wrongful-dismissal suit against the firm, Joe flatly tells him he has no case. “What happened to you,” Joe says, “it’s a bitch, but…” At home with his wife, Joe runs through the standard anti-gay litany. But when he spots an ailing Andrew at the library, buried in legal documents and refusing to be talked into “a separate research room,” Joe realizes they have something in common — experience with prejudice. And they begin to build Andrew’s case.

Despite this subject’s contemporary urgency, Philadelphia follows a game plan as old as the written word. Disappointment may set in when you recognize that this isn’t an AIDS movie at all; it’s a brotherhood movie, a semi-Capraesque drama pitting Two Little Guys Against The System. Yet Demme knows he can’t allow himself a Capraesque triumphant climax: Even if Andrew wins his case, he’s still going to die. Demme and Nyswaner play down the importance of the actual court verdict, focusing instead on the audience’s verdict. The filmmakers themselves are like attorneys representing Andrew: they mean to show that their client is a good lawyer and decent human being who deserves to be treated and respected accordingly. Any possible homophobic objections are smoothly overruled by the presence of the nice, presentable, heterosexual Tom Hanks in the role.

By painting Andrew as a virtually flawless man with whom straight audiences can identify because he’s “just like them,” Jonathan Demme undercuts his own message. If Andrew were a jerk and only moderately competent, would his plight then be justified? The movie barely permits Andrew anger or even sadness at his illness or the injustice done to him. At his most passionate, Andrew weeps at a Maria Callas aria and explains to Joe what it means to him. It’s a powerful scene by itself, but it comes out of nowhere; Andrew lacks the outsize personality, gay or straight, that would thrive on the excesses of opera. For most of the movie, he seems more like a Phil Collins fan.

The Maria Callas scene, which dramatizes the transporting force of art, throws a harsh light on the rest of Philadelphia, which derives its power from its subject, not its art. The actors are game, though. Denzel Washington stubbornly (and rightly) refuses to give Joe an overnight awakening; by the end of the movie, you feel that his newfound sense of fairness has changed Joe both as a lawyer and as a man. Antonio Banderas gives a beautiful performance, almost entirely with his eyes, as Andrew’s devoted lover Miguel. (Too bad this couple is more cuddle-bunny than carnal. Banderas, late of Pedro Almodovar’s films, wouldn’t have been shy about kissing a man onscreen.) Tom Hanks does what he can with a big, unwritten role; he works hard to strip any bathos from his performance, even when Andrew collapses in the courtroom. With a little help from the script, Hanks could have drawn on his comic gifts and been great. I kept thinking of Andy Lippincott, another AIDS-stricken lawyer, created by Garry Trudeau for his Doonesbury strip. Lippincott kept himself amused till the end and videotaped himself so he could be “part of the entertainment” at his own memorial service; he’d have been a wonderful, funky character for Hanks to play.

I couldn’t help wanting more from Philadelphia, yet some part of me also wants to applaud it for having been made at all. Given the sweeping goal it sets for itself, it probably doesn’t have room to be more. It does avoid potential thorns: Andrew’s family doesn’t reject him, and Miguel hardly blinks when it’s revealed that Andrew had sex with a stranger in a gay porn theater years ago (when he was already involved with Miguel). A whole movie could be built on either of those issues. Philadelphia uses the courtroom genre — always a useful genre to touch lightly on hot-button topics — to put a human face to AIDS and homosexuality for the hetero audience. It’s easy to say that it doesn’t go far enough. But the regrettable fact is that the many people who didn’t go see Parting Glances or Longtime Companion are more likely to see this film — with its Oscar-winning director, its known-heterosexual leads, and its big-studio push — and to be more affected by its simplistic handling of its subject than they would be by a more complex rendering. I’m willing to excuse the compromises Philadelphia makes if its likely success enables Hollywood to probe the subject of AIDS more deeply and candidly. Consider this a good start, a baby step in the right direction.

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