Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks), the hero of Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia, is, from the outset, a rather familiar movie type. Smooth, cocky, and obsessed with his work, he’s a gifted corporate lawyer in his mid-30s, the sort of hotshot careeraholic who starts murmuring demands into his cellular phone the moment he exits a judge’s chambers. A rising star at Wyant, Wheeler, et al., a prestigiously WASPy Philadelphia law firm, Andrew is a young turk who knows how to fold himself into the old boys network. As it turns out, he’s concealing more than he’s showing.
Andrew, we learn, is gay and has AIDS — not just HIV, but the full-blown disease. He has kept his condition, as well as his sexual orientation, a secret from his employers (though not from his friends and family). But on the day that he’s promoted to senior associate, someone notices a lesion on his forehead. Shortly after that, he’s fired – ostensibly for misplacing documents vital to a case, but really because his straitlaced firm can’t abide the notion that one of its members is a gay man afflicted with the so-called gay plague.
In the early scenes, Hanks’ performance has a magnetic energy marked by ripples of unease. Since Andrew is, professionally speaking, an in-the-closet homosexual, the film seems to be showing us only the surface of his personality. As his predicament comes to the fore, we wait for a view beneath that surface – for an answer to the question, ”Who, exactly, is this man?” Strangely enough, the answer never arrives. The reason, I think, is that Demme and his screenwriter, Ron Nyswaner, don’t know either.
When Demme, having won the Oscar for The Silence of the Lambs, chose to use his newfound clout to direct a major studio film about AIDS, he took on the opportunity of making the first full-scale Hollywood drama about contemporary gay life (and not just gay death). But Philadelphia turns out to be a scattershot liberal message movie, one that ties itself in knots trying to render its subject matter acceptable to a mass audience.
Outraged at his dismissal, Andrew slaps the Wheeler firm with an anti-discrimination suit and hires Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), a fast-talking ambulance chaser whose macho distrust of homosexuals gives way to his conviction that Andrew has been wronged. We’re cued to see that the ”missing documents” were a setup, the firm’s way of protecting itself legally. And since Andrew and Joe have little in common besides their devotion to the law, we wait for the movie to find its dramatic heart in their legal teamwork.
In outline, this sounds like the stuff of vintage courtroom films (and buddy flicks). Demme, however, directs like someone in conflict with himself. Philadelphia moves with his usual rhythmic assurance, and there are momentary flashes of the empathy – the astonishingly lifelike feel for character – that have marked such Demme classics as Melvin and Howard and Something Wild. Yet the central drama is so cautious and watery that it never quite gels. Too conscientious to turn his big AIDS movie into a conventionally rousing courtroom melodrama, Demme ends up subverting the genre for fear of exploiting it. He turns Andrew’s legal battle into a stop-and-shop instructional tour of AIDS, homophobia, and American gay life.
Andrew’s middle-American relatives are miraculously loving and supportive, a Norman Rockwell ad for the notion that gays have accepting families too. His longtime lover (Antonio Banderas) barely gets any scenes, just enough to let us know that these two are as happy and committed as any heterosexual couple. And Demme’s portrait of antigay prejudice never cuts deep enough to tweak the audience’s feelings. Either the characters are old-style movie bigots, like Jason Robards’ smug law-firm patriarch, or their intolerance simply melts away, as with Washington’s ignorant but humane attorney. Washington gives an almost generically charismatic performance, his official transformation to good guy accomplished in a grandstanding speech to the jury about antigay intolerance that no judge would have allowed.
Philadelphia is so pious in its attitude toward homosexuality that, at one point, Demme actually comes close to endorsing the prejudices he’s fighting against. When Hanks, on the witness stand, sorrowfully admits that he had anonymous sex in a porno theater, but only once, the film implicitly begs the question: Would Andrew have been less worthy of compassion had he engaged in a hundred anonymous encounters?
Hanks has some fine moments, especially when he’s testifying in court during the throes of illness; the actor makes you feel the battle between his will and his dying body. But Andrew, as written, is less a character than a file-card hodgepodge of gay characteristics. Certainly, it’s hard to feel any closer to him after seeing him discourse weepily on the beauties of Maria Callas singing ”La Mamma Morta” from the opera Andrea Chenier, a showpiece scene so obviously designed to win Hanks an Oscar that it’s an embarrassment to behold.
Ultimately, the audience has only one way to define Andrew Beckett: as a person with AIDS. Philadelphia ends up asking us to care about homosexuals because they’re dying, as if the fact that they’re living weren’t reason enough. B-