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Philadelphia entertains with slick but timely message

Starring Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Jason Robards, Mary Steenburgen, and Joanne Woodward.
Directed by Jonathan Demme.
Written by Ron Nyswaner.
Loews Copley.

By Scott Deskin.
Associate Arts Editor.

*ollywood's decision to back a movie like Philadelphia signifies a major change in social consciousness. The movie is quite candid with its subject matter, namely the AIDS epidemic. Not only does it confront the medical aspect of the AIDS crisis but also tackles the social view that the general public takes toward people afflicted with the disease.

, does a good job in depicting the social plague that accompanies those with AIDS. The film's title presents an "everytown" sort of setting, a city that is as open to equality and brotherhood as it is prone to racial mistrust and discrimination.

After a quick glimpse of Philadephia's streets through the film's opening credits, the story enters the world of Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks), a young, vital attorney on the fast track for success in a high-powered urban law firm. Beckett's life is far from ideal, however, as he is forced to conceal his homosexuality and his HIV-positive status from his employers, who later condemn his "deviant" behavior in private. His health inevitably deteriorates and, in the midst of handling a major case for the firm, Beckett is suddenly fired, seemingly without just cause.

Beckett's subsequent suit against his former colleagues for AIDS discrimination leads him to seek counsel, after many rejections, from Joe Miller (Denzel Washington). Miller is, at first glance, a world apart from Beckett's interests: He is a small-time personal injury lawyer, better known for television commercials than for legal talent. Miller is also a homophobe, and the chain of events that turn his emotions in line with Beckett's case is far from unexpected but also is poignant and subtly directed.

The movie's strong points are mainly attributable to the emotional power of the subject matter; yet, the film also suffers from the handling of the material, sometimes mistaking maudlin sentiment for emotional warmth. The effort to make the film topical and accessible to an audience at times seems more slick than heartfelt. The film's courtroom scenes are so carefully constructed that the arguments made by Miller about the public distrust of AIDS, clearly a social issue, is more stilted than inspired.

Some of the casting moves are obvious. The fact that Washington's character is black allows to him to view the subject of discrimination, on any grounds, with greater clarity. Joanne Woodward, as Beckett's mother, conveys genuine feeling as the family matriarch who supports her son's battle in court. And Jason Robards, who fits in effortlessly into the firm's old-boys network of senior partners, is a safe choice for the main adversary.

Hanks, though, delivers a powerful performance as the lawyer who is determined to win his case even as his own life begins to fade. Hanks makes the audience see beyond the make-up and thinning hair of an AIDS victim to a person of greater importance -- a victim of prejudice. Hanks and Washington are both excellent, and together they help overcome some of Demme's heavy-handed direction to create a lasting image of justice and emotion fighting the system. Philadelphia is not the revelation on AIDS that it was hyped to be, nor is it the flawless piece of social commentary it could have been, but it still carries enough emotion and power to affect an audience deeply.