Angel’s in the “Out” Field
Angels in America (2003): 6 out of 10: This play must have had a greater impact in the nineties then the miniseries has now. It also probably worked better as a play. That said this is one of the most creative filmings of a theater piece one is likely to see.
Mike Nichols deserves great praise for making the stage-bound fly with great imagination. He overreaches occasionally but the effect is memorizing. Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, and Justin Kirk shine. While the brilliant Jeffery Wright simply steals every scene he is in with his presence. Mary Louise Parker and relative newcomer Patrick Wilson are saddled with a disposable story that doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the play (Poor Mr. Wilson simply disappears for the last third or so of the miniseries while his characters mother played by Meryl Streep takes center stage.)
Pacino’s Roy Cohn is hammy and not nearly as evil as the original play probably made him (while Cohn has been more forgotten than redeemed since the play first came out his nemesis Ethel Rosenberg (Streep again) reputation has suffered greatly in the past ten years. While Pacino is very good Streep is simply brilliant in the very well written role of a Mormon mother lost in New York. Her character simply surprises both the other characters and the audience by not sticking to our preconceived notions.
Two actors, however, do suffer. Emma Thompson simply doesn’t make a good angel. She certainly isn’t helped that the angel moves around like a flying Peter Pan in a junior high school production. As a result of such amateur theatrics, the angel scenes simply don’t work.
The other problematic performance is Ben Shenkman as Louis. One quickly has sympathy for every character that suffers from this well insufferable character. No one, unfortunately, has sympathy for the audience who also suffers every time this horrible persona shows on screen. The character is simply evil. That self-centered, banal evil one finds in real life. This is of course fine in a film but Shenkman the actor doesn’t seem to realize how repellent his character’s actions are and instead pulls out Jewish stereotypes rather than real emotions in his scenes. Compare this to Pacino’s entertaining vision of evil in the persona of Mr. Cohn.
Creative and surprisingly fun Angels in America runs a little long (as a miniseries is wont to do) but is worth a look.