September 13, 2016
Philadelphia (1993)
Grade: 57/100

Director: Jonathan Demme
Stars: Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Jason Robards

What it's about. Tom Hanks is an up-and-comer at his prestigious law firm. But he has a secret life that the crass, backslapping top brass (Jason Robards, Robert Ridgely) doesn't know about. He's gay, has a live-in lover (Antonio Banderas), and has AIDS, back in the day when it was practically a death sentence.

But the brass apparently finds out, probably due to those Kaposi's sarcoma spots on his face. They promptly fires Hanks, just as his health is going downhill fast. The excuse is that Hanks lost a file, presumably executive sabotage. Hanks decides to sue, but can't find anyone to take his longshot case against one of the best law firms in Philadelphia. Until, that is, he convinces Denzel Washington, a new father of a baby girl with wife Lisa Summerour.

Washington is a homophobe, but because it is a movie, he takes the case. Unlike the real world, it promptly goes to trial. The judge is Charles Napier, and the defense attorney is Mary Steenburgen (one wonders why the firm could not have used a lawyer on staff). Hanks' health declines further until he nearly expires in the courtroom. His mother (Joanne Woodward) is concerned.

How others will see it. Playing a gay AIDS victim, Tom Hanks had a promising role for collecting trophies. Indeed, he won Best Actor at the Oscars and Golden Globes. Another winner was Bruce Springsteen, who won Best Original Song at both those festivals. Ron Nyswaner's script was somehow nominated for Best Screenplay at the Oscars, the Golden Globes, and BAFTA, but its politically correct status could not prevail over better films (respectively, The Piano, Schindler's List, and Pulp Fiction.

Philadelphia was also a box office success, and is sizable user vote total (180K) at confirms its continued popularity. There, it has a 7.7 user rating, with a moderate spread (7.5 from men versus 8.0 from women) emerging among older demographics. Conservatives need not apply, and don't leave your hankies at home.

How I felt about it. The first half of this movie is good. It really is. The cast is introduced, and there are many impressive names, especially Hanks, Washington, Robards, Banderas, and Steenburgen.

Everything moves along snappily until Denzel Washington begins to have strange conversations. There's the requisite one when he learns there are plenty of gay people out there, all of whom apparently know his wife. Then he has a shout-down at the bar with a bigot, and another with a promiscuous gay at a store. And in the courtroom he asks if a witness is gay, using a series of slurs in an accusing tone of voice. How could this help his client?

By now the film has clearly taken a wrong turn. It is not enough for it to be a credible courtroom drama addressing workplace discrimination of gay employees with contagious, terminal illnesses. The direction is increasingly manipulative.

You are supposed to commiserate with Denzel Washington as he works through his homophobia. You are supposed to gasp when Tom Hanks collapses in the courtroom (if you never saw that coming, you've never seen a movie before). You are expected to exult when Washington wins the court case, though it is a certainty that the verdict will be appealed to a pro-business district court, something that is never mentioned. And you are supposed to cry when Hanks has his beautiful death in the hospital, and a truly treacly song plays just before the credits.

I have to say, though, the film did have an amusing moment. While hearing Hanks admit in court that he had a rendezvous in a gay theater, Antonio Banderas pouts. He's so disappointed. Other eye-rolling moments include Denzel Washington slow-clapping after Jason Robards' testimony; one of the defendant lawyers bragging about dunking a flamboyant gay sailor in a dirty toilet; and most any scene involving Washington's perfect wife.

Come home late at night without an apology or explanation? No problem. Must attend a gay party filled with strangers at a moment's notice? Okay. One of the film's crew can babysit. Phone call for you in the middle of the night? I'll answer it. And I'll get my postpartum weight down to 110 for the next scene.