Friday, November 10, 2006

Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus - Movie Review

Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus 2006

Oh, Nicole Kidman, how you taunt us with your stardom and the work ethic of an indentured servant. Back in the day, when we and most of the international filmgoing audience first laid eyes upon your twinky nose and pre-Raphaelite tresses was in the slight but efficient thriller at sea, “Dead Calm”. Your dedication to your craft has never been in doubt, and we feel as if we have grown up watching you mature as an actress and star. Now many years, one fairly hairy relationship you might have heard of and one Best Actress Oscar later, your name is uttered by street urchins in Malaysia and your mug is plastered on every magazine cover known to man or beast.

Nicole’s latest is one troubling little misfire that still managed to hold our interest. It is called “Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus”. And for good reason. As the lengthy disclaimer so elegantly written in calligraphy begins this “What If?” tale of the famed photographer, this is no biopic. Oh, yes dear readers there was indeed a woman named Diane Arbus who grew up in the lap of a furrier’s daughter luxury, who began learning her craft as the assistant to her studio photographer husband and who ultimately became very famous on her own strengths as a stunning portrait photographer of the . . . well, let’s just leave it at “offbeat” clientele.

Fur”, (Yes, we’re dropping the subtitle, honestly our nails will be ruined if we keep that up for the rest of our review.) has been produced by the famed biographer of Ms. Arbus, Patricia Bosworth and for the life of us we wonder why. Surely a good steady biopic is in order, no? For whatever reason, screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson and director Steven Shainberg have opted to cast an askew glance to the factual details and plunge straight ahead with a fairly trite take on “Beauty & The Beast”.

Well, the good news is that Nicole of course plays the “Beauty”, and the very talented Robert Downey Jr. is the “Beast”. We are first introduced to Diane in her role as full time housewife and mother to two girls, and part time assistant to a loving but preoccupied husband.

The film opens with a lavish soiree being held Chez Arbus by Diane’s parents, played by the magnificent four time Oscar nominee Jane Alexander (SOMEBODY PLEASE FIND A GOOD ROLE FOR THIS ACTING ICON! Okay, we’ll stop yelling.) and stalwart character actor Harris Yulin. We learn various things immediately.

One. Diane is one frustrated and borderline nervous breakdown victim being held hostage by the Dior look and her lack of intellectual or emotional stimulus.

Two. Her husband is H-O-T! Okay, he’s very attractive. Unfortunately, the attractive young actor Ty Burrell is not called upon to do much more than look befuddled.

Three. There is a mysterious new neighbor in the Arbus apartment building. One so mysterious that he moves in at the middle of the night cloaked in a bizarre mask and layers of clothing. As Diane peers outside and captures his matching stare, their exchange is meant to spark an intense interest that will catapult her into the next stage of her life. Or so the film wants to tell us.

It doesn’t really succeed. For once Diane and the audience discover the identity of the mysterious stranger living above her; there is very little room for this script to escape its “B&B”-locked contrivances. It doesn’t help matters that Jean Cocteau and Disney have already laid claim on magical and wildly different cinematic versions of that famed legend.

Director Steven Shainberg earned his new found fame with his flippy and fun take on S&M-lite:Secretary” starring the delectable Maggie Gyllenhaal and the deliciously hammy James Spader. He brings many smart tricks and visual turns to this softening of the Arbus legend, not all of them commendable.

A select few earned our interest and respect. The ridiculously bizarre notion that the upstairs neighbor would try to introduce himself by clogging the drainpipes with a Persian rug sized clot of hair and a mysterious key is played out for all its worth cinematically. The camera glides and spins across and through the pipes and lands squarely upon the beautiful gaze of Miss Kidman.

And here is where she is to be commended for her work. For surely, a star of her magnitude – and make no mistake about it kids, she is perhaps the biggest female star alive today – is able to hold our attention and smooth over the roughest patches of the very rough scenario to ground the film in some semblance of reality.

The camera adores her face. She is an actress of very fine mettle when the role and temperament match. Nobody can outclass or outact her in her finest work, by which we mean: To Die For”, “The Portrait of a Lady”, “Eyes Wide Shut”, “The Others”, “Dogville and Birth”.

SKKKKRREEEEEEEEEEEECCCHHHHHHH!!!!! What? Wait!! Where’s Moulin Rouge! and her Oscar winning role in The Hours? We hear you. And you are wrong. For the vulgar excesses of Spaz Lurid’s truncated whorehouse MTV video and the stately mansions archness of her Virginia Woolf are roles that reach to the seventeenth balcony and beyond. Neither one is even close to resembling a human being. The other roles we cite her for, are indeed her greatest work and ones she should be damn proud of.

Fur” is not her weakest work, nor her least interesting. But the film never escapes its fairy tale shell of a storyline. We watch helplessly and half heartedly as the fictional Diane goes through the paces of a woman emerging from her sheltered existence into the supposed real Diane Arbus’ ultimate glory. The film simply doesn’t work as an allegory, fairy tale or movie. We have moments of clarity that hint at the possible interesting performance Nicole might have given in a solid biopic of the great American artist. This is not it. Perhaps during some late tortured evening of insomnia, you might come across “Fur” playing on cable and you might venture to cast a jaundiced glance Nicole’s way. But for now, stay home and read the fine biography from Miss Bosworth instead. Bless you all!

Directed by Steven Shainberg
Written by Erin Cressida Wilson
Based on the book by Patricia Bosworth

Nicole Kidman as Diane Arbus
Robert Downey Jr. as Lionel Sweeney
Ty Burrell as Allan Arbus
Jane Alexander as Gertrude Nemerov
Harris Yulin as David Nemerov
Emmy Clarke as Grace Arbus
Genevieve McCarthy as Sophie Arbus

Cinematography by Bill Pope
Film Editing by Kristina Boden & Keiko Deguchi
Original Music by Carter Burwell
Production Design by Amy Danger
Art Direction by Nick Ralbovsky
Set Decoration by Carrie Stewart
Costume Design by Mark Bridges



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