HBO // 2003 // 108 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Elizabeth Skipper (Retired) // October 31st, 2003
"I don't know of any other couple in our congregation, or in this town for that matter, more devoted to each other, more in love, than Roy and Irma."
I consider myself monumentally open minded. I am a liberal in the truest sense of the word when it comes to, for lack of a better phrase, lifestyles that deviate from the norm. In my opinion, if it makes you happy and you're not hurting anyone, then have at it. And, frankly, the more shocking and disturbing it is to those stuck in their ways on the conservative side, the more I support it. After all, the best bumper sticker I've ever seen read "Doing my best to piss off the religious right."
But it's easy to be supportive from a distance. When I'm close up and seeing the details -- which is where this movie put me -- I suddenly find myself asking if everyone wouldn't be much happier if they just acted "normal."
Normal opens with Roy (Tom Wilkinson, Sense and Sensibility, The Full Monty, In the Bedroom) and Irma's (Jessica Lange, Frances, Tootsie, A Thousand Acres) 25th anniversary party, during which Roy passes out. It then cuts to the couple in counseling with their pastor and Irma explaining that the blackout and Roy's recent headaches are caused by stress. We soon learn the cause of this stress when Roy confesses that he feels he was born in the wrong body. He believes he's really a woman; and, furthermore, he's felt this way for years and plans to pursue a sex-change operation in the near future. The couple goes home and, after suffering through a silent dinner with their teenage daughter, Patty Ann, heads upstairs for the argument that will result in Irma kicking Roy out of the house. ("Frankly, honey, there's no way you're a woman. Only a man could be this selfish.")
The next day, Roy, enacting his plan to begin slowly dressing as a woman, wears perfume to the farm-equipment factory where he works. When his coworkers accuse him of an affair, he takes umbrage at the suggestion and proudly states that the perfume is his. In their disbelief, they leave him alone, but they don't take so kindly to the earrings he wears a few days later. Undaunted, Roy continues the process, letting his hair grow out, buying women's clothes, and beginning to take female hormones.
Irma continues to be angry and confused, and she isn't helped by the pastor, who indicates that she may have done something to cause Roy's "problem." But when Roy's father ridicules him at a family gathering (and it's apparent this isn't the first time by far), and Irma finds him in the barn with a shotgun to his chin, she reaches a turning point. She realizes that Roy will always be the person she loves, even if he's not the man she loves; she'd rather have him as a woman than dead.
That's nowhere near the end of the story, of course. They still need to tell the children (Patty Ann and a grown son), contend with their Midwest town, and figure out how to rewrite the rules and expectations of their marriage.
Let me begin by saying that Normal is not a movie about a man who wants to become a woman; it's a movie about how love can become unconditional and about how a marriage can survive nearly overwhelming obstacles. Just as the aliens were merely the vehicle for telling the story of rediscovering faith in Signs, the sex change is merely the vehicle for telling the story of an indestructible love in Normal.
But I didn't realize this at first, so when Roy started talking about surgery in the first five minutes of the movie, and when the details were glossed over in lieu of Irma's reactions, I felt it was all moving too fast. If this is a movie about a man who wants to become a woman, shouldn't they be educating me on the subject a little more? Shouldn't I understand where this gender dysphoria comes from? Shouldn't the story be told from Roy's perspective? When I figured it out, the questions disappeared. I don't need to know the details of a sex change to comprehend its effect on a marriage. I don't need to know what has been going on in Roy's head; I need to know what is going on in both parties' heads. When I figured it out, I realized that Normal was telling me all I needed to know.
Adding to my initial mistaken impression about the movie is that it's a bit of a black comedy. Though even as I write that, I realize it's not exactly accurate. It feels like a black comedy because we've been trained to expect that subjects as serious as this one will be treated with gravity and respect. Instead Normal treats the subject how most people would treat it -- by using humor to deflect the pain. We all make jokes to communicate emotions we don't know how to talk about, but because this is one of the few movies I've seen that recognizes that phenomenon, it plays as black.
When I finally got past all my misconceptions, I found myself enjoying this moving yet strangely funny movie, mostly because of its two lead actors, Tom Wilkinson and Jessica Lange. Both played their parts of down-to-earth, practical Midwesterners dealing with life-altering and mind-shattering experiences with amazing deftness. The supporting cast is not quite as talented -- Joe Sikora as the son left something to be desired, and Randall Arney as the pastor, though entertaining, was too farcical for the realism purported by the rest of the movie -- but Wilkinson and Lange were bound to overshadow them regardless of their abilities.
Both the 1.78:1 anamorphic video and the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio transfers are decent, not remarkably good or remarkably bad. I did see some slight shimmering during the opening credits, but if it returned after that, I didn't notice. The disc offers an informative commentary by director Jane Anderson and some space-filling text bios of the cast and the director.
The Rebuttal Witness
As I said in the "Opening Statement" above, I found myself wondering why Roy needed to rock the boat, why he couldn't just quash his urges and find contentment with his wife and family. It turns out it's not that I couldn't accept the idea of a man becoming a woman; it's that I couldn't accept the idea of Roy becoming a woman and ripping his family from its calm. In my mind, they were functional and "normal" -- couldn't he let them continue that way?
And that's really the point, isn't it? Who's to say they're not still functional and normal...and now happy? Who's to say there is such a thing as "normal" in the first place?
Normal will either open your mind or it will open it further. Either way, it's something you should experience. Watch it to remind yourself that "normal" is relative; watch it to curb the judgmentalism that creeps up on us all; and, most importantly, watch it because it will entertain you while it accomplishes all these lofty goals.
As all the laws under which it has been charged have been found antiquated and unconstitutional, Normal is free to go.
Review content copyright © 2003 Elizabeth Skipper; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Audio Commentary with Writer/Director Jane Anderson
* Cast and Director Bios