From the archives: Our review of 'Philadelphia'

Director Jonathan Demme has died at the age of 73. Here is our 1994 review of his film, Philadelphia.

By now, many people may be dreading the arrival of "Philadelphia," which has come to be regarded as one of those movies that's good for you - a sort of moral flu shot.

This is understandable. As a rule, moviegoers should be suspicious of any motion picture that's discussed on "Nightline" before it plays in theaters.

Just remember that behind all the AIDS hoopla, frantic studio spin control and Ted Koppel-brow-furrowing is this: "Philadelphia" is just a Hollywood movie. And a pretty good one.

It's a vehicle for stars Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington. They're in top form. It also stars Philadelphia, and the city is in top form - starting with a handsome opening skyline shot that melts into a montage (backed by a new Bruce Springsteen song) that makes Philadelphia look like a lively place that is home to many races and cultures and composed of neighborhoods rich and poor. Like a city, in other words.

The story, as every Philadelphian surely knows by now, concerns a closeted homosexual lawyer named Andrew Beckett (Hanks) who is fired summarily from his prestigious Philadelphia law firm. Beckett believes he was fired for having AIDS. The firm claims he was fired for negligence.

In no time, Beckett is down and, in every respect, out. He wants to sue his old firm, but can find no lawyer to take his case. (This will give tort reform advocates a hearty laugh. ) The desperate Beckett even attempts to hire a lowly ambulance-chasing personal-injury attorney named Joe Miller (Washington). Openly prejudiced against homosexuals, Miller refuses Beckett's case. He then changes his mind, for reasons I'll explain in a bit.

Miller's character is the movie's admission ticket for heterosexual and anti-gay America. Those hostile to homosexuals and to AIDS sufferers who contract the virus through homosexual activity presumably can identify with Miller (and with the likable Washington).

This, of course, is the baited hook. Miller is destined to take a more reasoned look at Beckett's situation, and so is the audience.

Miller warms to Beckett's plight after seeing him gawked at and bullied in a law library. The implication is that Miller recognizes this as the kind of mistreatment historically accorded blacks. (The movie is careful not to make an overt connection between civil-rights struggles of blacks and the discrimination suffered by HIV-positive homosexuals. Yet the subliminal connection is plain. )

Miller takes the case, and education begins in earnest. As Beckett's lawyer, Miller is encouraged to see matters from Beckett's point of view. He meets Beckett's friends and family, and the gay man begins to take human shape. The lawyer develops a natural empathy for the sick and suffering man.

"Philadelphia" means for the audience to follow Miller's progress. We also develop a rooting interest in this underdog team as they battle Beckett's powerful former employers, led by jowly Jason Robards and represented in court by a deceptively genteel Mary Steenburgen.

"Philadelphia" is built like a standard courtroom drama but it plays differently in the hands of Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme ("Silence of the Lambs"). "Philadelphia" has Demme 's radical shifts in tone (remember ''Something Wild"?) and point of view. The movie's dramatic focus switches abruptly from Beckett's legal problem to Miller's education and, finally and ingeniously, to the disease itself. ( Demme uses sound and camera techniques to put the audience inside the Beckett's failing body. )

 The movie is unusually smart. Still, "Philadelphia" never soars like an inspired movie. Every issue and every scene feels calculated and fretted over, a byproduct of the effort to engage a broad and potentially anti-gay audience. This is one movie that cannot be accused of preaching to the converted.

It is engineered to be audience-safe for mothers, siblings, heterosexual gay-bashing men, and in a sneaky way, those with strong religious beliefs. ''Philadelphia" asks the audience to place its feelings about homosexuality and AIDS in a religious context. ("Read your Bible, counselor, there are some pretty important rules in there," shouts Robard's character. ) The movie asks us to weigh statuatory biblical proscriptions against homosexuals against more overarching concepts of mercy and forgiveness.

 Where the movie is usually blunt with its intentions and themes, this one creeps up behind us, hiding behind images and subtle suggestion. Knowing this may help you make more sense of Hanks' infamous opera scene, which many viewers find off-putting or confusing.

The movie's heart-on-sleeve compassion rarely feels sentimental, and its activism seldom feels smug or preachy. The stars should get most of the credit for this. Hanks and Washington (in a role that's unexpectedly comic) have rarely been better and use their considerable star power to obscure some of the movie's flaws.

 

 PHILADELPHIA * * *