Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, November 18, 2013

Director Report Card: Mary Harron (2013)

5. Anna Nicole

The Director Report Card project has sent me on many a varied, unexpected journey. I have experienced films that otherwise never would have graced my eyes. Certainly, I never expected a Lifetime Channel TV movie about Anna Nicole Smith to cross my watch-list. On the surface, it’s the sort of material beneath an accomplished filmmaker like Mary Harron. But then again, the life of a sex-pot is a topic Harron has covered before to some success. If anyone could look beyond the trashy surface of Anna Nicole’s complicated life, it would be a well-known feminist like Harron. Yet at the same time, how does one handle a topic this outrageous? Do they play Anna’s frequently ridiculous life for campy, mean-spirited laughs? Or do you look for pathos among the strip clubs, pill-popping, and reality show tomfoolery?

The film follows Anna Nicole’s life mostly through the well-known, broad strokes. She starts life as Vicki Lynn in a Texas trailer park. Her police officer mother is frequently absent, a series of step-dads around to abuse her and her older sister. Mom is determined to prevent her daughter from getting married and/or pregnant young. It doesn’t work, as the soon-to-be Anna Nicole is divorced and with a baby boy by the time she’s 19. Desperate for work, she soon gets a job at a strip club. A chance encounter with an elderly billionaire changes her life forever, soon realizing her secret dream of becoming the next Marylin Monroe. The breast implants, Playboy centerfolds, flopping acting career, spousal death, drug addiction, reality show, and baby-daddy scandal all follow in rapid succession.

This isn’t something I’d expect to say: It’s a discredit to Anna Nicole’s life squeezing the whole thing into a brief, 86-minute TV movie. The film skips over large portions of her story. Her rise to fame from stripper to international sex symbol is covered in a montage. The transformation from Vicki-Lynn to Anna Nicole happens completely off-screen. Her time at Playboy boils down to one photoshoot and a few glimpses at magazine covers. Nicole’s career as the Guess Jeans girl, arguably what really launched her into pop culture infamy, is isolated to two whole scenes. Her ill-fated foray into action stardom with “Skyscraper” gets a brief mention but the actual production, filming, and critical fallout aren’t elaborated on. The rest of her “acting” career, such as “The Hudsucker Proxy,” warrant no mention. You’d expect the legal battle for her husband’s estate to take up more screentime. It’s discussed over maybe ten minutes of scenes. The model’s relationship with her daughter’s father is another topic you’d expect to come up a lot. Instead, that’s all of one interaction. If, for whatever reason, you’re looking for a comprehensive peak into the life of Anna Nicole-Smith, you might be better served reading her Wikipedia article then watching this movie.

So what about the personal details? Does “Anna Nicole” get at the mockable pop culture figure’s soul? Almost. The emotional heart of the film rises out of Nicole’s relationship with her son Danny. The two are portrayed as close from the get-go. Most of what Anna does, at first anyway, is for the benefit of her son. Early scenes of the two playing together or swimming in a pool are sweet. After she reaches stardom, the relationship switches around, the son being the responsible one. He chastises his pill addled mother out of love and disappointment. Nicole loves her son a great deal and the two increasingly depend on each other. Disappointingly, Daniel’s own drug problem is brushed over, happening off-screen in the margins. The only time “Anna Nicole” truly generates pathos is during Daniel’s funeral, when Anna breaks down. A mother, albeit a highly dysfunctional one, burying her own son is deeply sad, regardless of the context. The protagonist’s sole moment of self-awareness is on the car ride away from the funeral, the only time the mostly-intrusive frequently absurd voice-over really works.

You’d also expect Mary Harron to comment more on the system that feeds into the self-destructive tendencies of stars like Anna Nicole. Or maybe on the sexist hierarchies that force women to exploit themselves. Instead, Nicole’s drug problem and the excessive life style that fed it are presented without much comment. She first combines wine and pills to ease anxiety over getting naked in public. From there on, the drugs are just a part of her life, something she routinely indulges in. She doesn’t start out as much of a party girl but instead fills the role, making out with another model in a hotel elevator or getting publicly drunk while three weeks pregnant. Harron employs the rather cheesy device of young Anna regularly getting glimpse of her glamorous, idealized self in a mirror. After she hits rock bottom, she begins to see herself as a child in the mirror. That’s a little on the nose, don’t you think? Either way, it’s fairly clear this is a work-for-hire job for Harron.

So there’s little social commentary or deep insight into the starlet’s life. Ultimately, “Anna Nicole” becomes worth watching for its central performance. Agnes Bruckner has given underrated performances in films before, most notably (for me anyway) in Lucky McKee’s “The Woods.” I never would have picked the actress for the part. However, Bruckner adapts amazingly well. She’s nearly unrecognizable with bleached blonde hair, wearing fake breasts to bring Bruckner’s modest figure up to Nicole’s famous curves. She fully inhabits the part, conveying Nicole’s mannerisms. Bruckner never slips into parody, instead rooting even Nicole’s most outrageous behavior, such as binging on fast-food pizza or drunkenly stumbling around in clown make-up, in humanity. It’s probably the best performance any one could ask of the material. The supporting cast is solid too. Martin Landau is probably slumming it as J. Howard Marshall. However, Landau brings a lot of humor and grace to the part, playing him as more then just a horny old man. Cary Elwes sneers fantastically as the millionaire's son while Graham Patrick Martin and Caleb Barwick are solid as both versions of Danny. I guess its standard that above-average performances save bland bio-pic material, even in the world of Lifetime TV movies.

“Anna Nicole” rises above the trashy TV movie thrills of, say, “Dick and Liz.” But just barely, and mostly thanks to its lead performance. It’s a fairly unremarkable film. Harron doesn’t contribute much visually, save for a nicely poetic final shot. Maybe barely above mediocre is the most you can ask for in this territory. [Grade: C+]

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