The Watcher - Heaven sent

Angels in America a divine adaptation

HBO's much anticipated film version of Angels in America could have been a phenomenal disaster. There's a calculated risk in reworking one of the most talked about plays of the '90s into a sprawling six-hour film, even with the heavy guns of Al Pacino, Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson backing the project.

And even though the cable network has produced successful stage-to-screen adaptations in recent years — like the graceful Wit — it's also put out some stinkers (did anyone catch its dreadful The Laramie Project?).

Regardless, Angels in America is an unqualified triumph. Thanks perhaps to the role playwright Tony Kushner played in adapting his own work, or the polished direction of Mike Nichols, the film sometimes feels bigger than itself, with its mind-bending debates on race, democracy, sexuality and synchronicity.

Those unfamiliar with the Tony- and Pulitzer-winner play may at first be bewildered by the meandering, often off-the-wall plot. The action roughly follows the meltdown of two couples in the mid-1980s. It's the dawn of the AIDS epidemic, and just as Prior Walter (Justin Kirk) begins to show signs of infection, his lover Louis Ironson (Ben Shenkman) flies the coop. Meanwhile, Joe and Harper Pitt (Patrick Wilson and Mary-Louise Parker) crash and burn when Joe gets offered an influential government job by shady politico Roy Cohn (Pacino, in particularly oily form).

Sounds simple, but Prior's mounting visions and hints that a divine messenger has a mission for him, paired with Harper's drug-induced head trips into a self-imposed Antarctica, make for a surreal — and visually exhilarating — flight of fancy.

Nichols smartly retains the play's double casting, which has Streep play both Joe's judgmental mom Hannah and Cohn's nemesis, Ethel Rosenberg. Thompson pulls double duty as sassy nurse Emily and, eventually, as the heavenly harbinger herself. Such concessions hint at greater meanings to the individual parts of the machine, though the meaning is left largely up to the audience to decipher.

Kushner may have stayed a bit too true to the original material, because some of the dialogue comes off as stilted. The frequent non sequiturs might have worked better on stage, but on screen they can feel forced. Still, his indictment of Reagan-era morality (and hypocrisy) takes on a particularly timely air, given the recent flap over CBS' damning biopic of the Teflon President and the play's prescience of the rise of conservative America.

Pacino plays Cohn with appropriate bile and wears his age like a merit badge. He looks every bit demonic in his temptation scenes with Joe, a star-making turn for Wilson. Ben Shenkman's take on Louis feels like he's channeling a young Kushner, which makes sense considering he worked under the playwright while in grad school.

Set against these rich, nuanced performances are the film's special effects, which pop up regularly. At worst they can feel like "Ally McBeal" gimmicks — with collapsing floors, bulging ceilings and the appearance of two ghosts who are a bit too A Christmas Carol for comfort. Yet, the effects don't spoil the product and oddly work, another testament perhaps to Nichols.

Weighing in at six hours, Angels in America sometimes threatens to collapse under its own weight. HBO lessens the burden by breaking the premiere up into two parts (on stage it was divided into two separate plays Millenium Approaches and Perestroika). Future playdates will further serialize the film, splitting the six "chapters" into one-hour segments.

Despite its potential for failure, Angels in America defies the odds and emerges as an almost instant classic. Kushner's stage work gets reinterpreted just enough to prove itself as more than a mere period piece — with a riveting and universal message that feels every bit as relevant today.

Angels in America debuts Dec. 7 at 8 p.m. on HBO.


The Watcher is a weekly column on television, DVDs and other small-screen delights.