'Angels' Message Comes Across Slowly

12/07/2003 7:00 PM Eastern

Home Box Office's six-hour movie event, Angels in America, takes on AIDS and the apocalypse, not to mention good and evil.

The $60 million movie, adapted from Tony Kushner's Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning play and directed by Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Catch-22), is steeped in religious imagery, while also tackling heavy themes like justice, faith and death.

Set during the mid-1980s, Angels is the story of two men dying of AIDS, one good, one evil; several crumbling relationships; one man grappling with homosexuality; a reluctant prophet; and, oh yeah, the second coming. The fates of all the characters are tightly interwoven as they move through their sometime trippy world filled with dreams, visions and pill-induced hallucinations.

Prior Walter (Justin Kirk), the man tapped by heaven to "prepare the way," is stricken with AIDS at age 30. He's left by a lover who can't handle watching him descend into sickness and does not want the enormous responsibility that has been given to him. When Emma Thompson's angel finally appears to him in the second half of the movie, their meeting takes a strange comic turn. She reveals that God has abandoned the angels, leaving heaven somewhat disorganized.

Thompson and Meryl Streep both give commendable performances in multiple roles. Unfortunately, the sometimes-absurd interaction between Thompson's angel and Prior Walter destroys the gravity of the character.

But Al Pacino turns in a riveting performance as the morally and ethically challenged attorney Roy Cohn. He, too, has AIDS and is dying. But unlike Walter, Cohn is despised by almost all who know him, especially the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (Streep) — a convicted spy whose execution Cohn played a large role in, and who torments him as he wastes away.

The film's slow pacing during the first half, entitled "Millennium Approaches," no doubt may turn many viewers off and the second half, "Perestroika," doesn't proceed much faster. Angels
is also hurt by speeches that tend to turn into lectures on religion, philosophy and ethics. But the second half does deliver revelations for all of the characters and is filled with nods to not only biblical apocalypse, but millennial ideas of America.

Walter's final conflict with Thompson and her angelic cohorts plays heavily on justice and abandonment and ties the separate story threads together nicely. But the movie's message is undercut by a somewhat corny ending following that confrontation.

Part I of Angels in America
debuted last night and Part II will bow Sunday, Dec. 14, at 8 p.m. The network has scheduled several showings across HBO, HBO2 and HBO Signature throughout December and January. Signature will run all six hours of the movie Jan. 3, and will show the movie in one-hour chapters each Sunday night, beginning Jan. 4.

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