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 filming 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 Jeffrey Wright 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 fit in with the rest of the play (Poor Mr. Wilson 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 in the past ten years. While Pacino is very good Streep is brilliant in the very well written role of a Mormon mother lost in New York. Her character surprises both the other characters and the audience by not sticking to our preconceived notions.
Two actors, however, do suffer. Emma Thompson doesn’t make a good angel. She isn’t helped that the angel moves around like a flying Peter Pan in a junior high school production. Because of such amateur theatrics, the angel scenes 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 evil. That self-centered, banal evil one finds in real life. This is 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 genuine emotions in his scenes. Compare this to Pacino’s entertaining vision of evil in the persona of Mr. Cohn.
Creative and fun Angels in America runs a little long (as a miniseries is wont to do) but is worth a look.