"Normal" attempts to tackle a highly complex issue in the space of a feature-length movie, and this limitation makes it not a wholly successful effort. The sheer complexity of transgender issues warrants a miniseries treatment such asn HBO did for AIDS in the gay community with "Angels in America", and if "Normal" has a weakness, it's that it tried to cram too much into too brief a space. However, as the first serious dramatic treatment of a transgendered person's unique challenges, "Normal" deserves kudos, not the least for the brave performances from Tom Wilkinson & Jessica Lange. Ms. Lange in particular has a very difficult role, perched on the razor's edge between feelings of love & betrayal, and she captures this inner war brilliantly. Her face reflects all the conflicting emotions of anger, grief, bewilderment & pain, leavened with flashes of wry amusement at the ridiculousness of her situation, with grace & never, ever overacting or seeming to try too hard. Even though Tom Wilkinson's character, Roy, is the one facing the biggest outward changes, Lange reminds us that internal changes can be just as transforming, though not as evident. Her performance is the centerpiece of the film. She has gotten even more luminously beautiful over the years; we reason that if she, as his wife, can't make Roy glad he's a man, then he must really be serious.
As Roy, the catalyst for all this family trauma, Tom Wilkinson has more of a one-note performance; it seems that having made up his mind, despite 50-odd years of cultural conditioning to the contrary, Roy never looks back or even feels a twinge of doubt or regret over what he's about to do. We feel sympathy for Roy, but not nearly as much as we do for his wife, if only because we don't feel we know him as well. Our sympathy springs less from identification with his plight as it does from knowing that Roy could hardly have engineered more difficult circumstances for himself to realize his dream. His determination verges on delusion, such as when he wears perfume and earrings to work, and is surprised that his tough factory-worker colleagues slam his head into a locker. The movie ends just prior to Roy's surgery, but the odds seem stacked against him for making a successful transition; how can he, without therapy, support groups, fashion sense or seemingly any plan in place for 'after'? Does he really suppose that he'll be able to continue his life in all its outward particulars--living in the same house, working at the same job--as he did 'before'? Indeed, he seems aghast that anyone else in his life should have the gall to have a problem adjusting to his new lifestyle. These issues are not addressed satisfactorily; nor is the the problem of Roy's sex life after he becomes Ruth. Despite all of Mr. Wilkinson's best efforts, he remains a very masculine-looking man, with only the very subtlest of feminizing changes to his look or his body language. He radiates sincerety in his belief that he can become feminine, but the rest of us remain doubtful. I would've been tempted to dismiss Mr. Wilkinson's Roy as a completely unrealistic portrayal had I not recently seen a cable documentary about a MTF transsexual very like Roy: a middle-aged, burly man from the heartland with a butch job and strained family relations, whose only concession to femininity prior to his operation was bleaching his longish hair. In all other particulars of dress and manner, he was still extremely masculine. So perhaps Roy isn't as far out of the 'norm' of sexual reassignment seekers as it might seem at first blush.
Roy's family, and his life as a whole seems like a construct of TV Screenwriting 101. He's got two children, a son and a daughter, who function merely as plot conveniences and an audience for Daddy's experiment. The middle-school-aged daughter, who is coping with her own body changes provides a counterpoint to her father's concurrent body issues. To be sure the audience understands this, we are provided helpful shorthand: Patty Ann favors men's shirts, hates wearing bras & stands outside her parents' bedroom saying helpful things like "Is Daddy in drag? Can I see?" While it is not out of the realm of possibility that a teenage daughter might be able to eventually accept a transgendered parent with a minimum of trauma, it is NOT likely that she would be as glib about it as Patty Ann. Would a 13-year-old girl really be swapping makeup and waxing tips around the pool with her erstwhile dad, painting his toenails with easy familiarity like he was some kind of cool life-size Barbie, and not the person who was turning her life upside down and making her an object of ridicule among all her peers? Likewise, the opposition of the older son has the same forced glibness. Would it occur to a young man, no matter how opposed he was to the operation, to call his father a "c***" at Thanksgiving dinner? Perhaps a slew of other pejorative names, but not that one, surely. Nor would this exchange of insults culminating in a broken nose be likely to be the balm that mends the rift in their rocky relationship either, but the movie seems to suggest that after one altercation, things are all better now and the son has come around to the father's point of view. Roy's fellow townspeople, predictably, react to this metamorphosis of Roy's none too favorably. There is the locker incident. Someone writes "You are not normal" in the dirt on his truck. He is given the cold shoulder when he comes to church in a dress. However, Roy gets off very lightly, considering that his story could have an ending like "Boys Don't Cry" or "The Matthew Shepard Story". This movie was afraid to pull those kinds of punches . . .or maybe it just ran out of time.
"Normal" is a good start to a nationwide dialogue about transgendered issues, and helped pave the way for Felicity Huffman's probable Oscar nomination for "Transamerica". Despite its flaws, it depicts a transgendered individual's personal war to achieve what feels "Normal" to him, rather than being just a freak show. Better to be considered a freak show on the the outside than to feel like one on the inside, it seems to say.