PHILADELPHIA (Jonathan Demme, 1993)

Once, Jonathan Demme seemed modestly gifted and humane (Handle with Care, 1977; Melvin and Howard, 1980). The Silence of the Lambs (1991), however, exposed Demme’s audience-rousing bent and depraved personality while imposing on us the bizarre histrionics of Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster, each of whom, absent acting ability, at least absent acting ability applicable to their roles here, came equipped with a bag of hoary tricks. By the time the pro-serial killer ending rolled around, one had long since given up the ghost of Demme’s having anything to say that might enrich our lives. Demme’s follow-up, Philadelphia, a nasty soap opera, trivial, inflated and ugly, wells up with self-pity faster than E.T. For here is a film so offensively one-track that nothing at all real or human is permitted to filter through—this, despite a nuanced performance by Jason Robards (formerly Demme’s grizzled Howard Hughes) as a self-assured lawyer accused of pink-slipping a firm underling for being homosexual and having contracted AIDS. Robards’ sound refusal to play the character as a cardboard villain intrudes an element of ambiguity that Demme’s single-minded movie won’t tolerate; but nothing so intriguingly chides the movie’s pop-rock goo as Robards’ sophisticated riffs.

Tom Hanks won an Oscar for a tear-jerking tour-de-force as the hideously dying young lawyer whose Waterloo is a pornographic movie house where he had sex with a stranger. Turning the tables on the firm that fired him, the man sues. As usual, Hanks is sensitive and alert, and the recorded voice of Maria Callas carries him through a big, flamboyant, operatic scene. Hanks is convincingly homosexual, and nearly as convincingly in a deteriorating state of health; but a brilliant lawyer? Hanks is ordinary, after all—a big, likeable guy with an edge of arrogance that his sainted role here won’t permit him to touch. The role and this fine actor, therefore, constitute less than a perfect match.

But Robards and he are all that commend Philadelphia. The rest of the cast is dismal. As the complainant’s attorney, Denzel Washington is too above the fray to convince as a television-age ambulence chaser and, just as typically, too resistant to getting down into the character’s mental muck to suggest the man’s subsequent growth. Washington covers his lack of acting ability with a pretty face, but much more than that would be necessary to pull this part off. As is his wont, Washington clings for security to the cipher that defines his nature. Drawn and dreary, and as obnoxious as ever, Demme-alumna Mary Steenburgen plods through the part of lead attorney for the defense. For all the impression he makes, Antonio Banderas is a feather as Hanks’s longtime companion. And, this once worse than even Washington, is Joanne Woodward as Hanks’s fatuously supportive mom. I have admired much of her other work, especially in the 1950s, but here Woodward is dreadful.

The title of Philadelphia refers to the “city of brotherly love.” The obviousness of the allusion sums up the film’s coarse approach, into which only Robards manages an inroad or two of subtlety. Nevertheless, the result is way superior to The Silence of the Lambs—and it contains The Boss’s Oscar-winning tune.

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