It’s a case of my being overly sensitive, but this state—woefully detrimental in business, finance, sports or legal matters—is immeasurably beneficial for the appreciation of an otherwise ludicrous movie that’s inches away from becoming another Boxing Helena. Fur is flawed, some would say deeply so, and an unapologetic spin on La Belle et la bête. Yet, like a handful of other poorly received Nicole Kidman pictures—Birth, Birthday Girl and The Human Stain spring to mind—it can be oddly compelling depending upon how much tosh you’re willing to let slide. These particular films also make me wonder just how much control she exerts behind the camera: directed by different people, they all share a distinct, loony flavor, sleepy pace and an ethereal sense of eroticism.
I’m honestly not up on Diane Arbus, so I’ll leave the debates over whether or not Nicole nailed the character to more learned souls…though I’m fairly certain they’ll say she botched it. Anyone expecting truth from “an imaginary portrait,” however, deserves disappointment. From the random sampling of her work that I have seen, Arbus appears to have been the Drew Friedman of the Camelot era. Both share a morbid fascination for jaundiced Americana and physical deformity—Diane through a passive-aggressive lens, Drew in insanely detailed stipple illustration. She eventually took her own life, while her ex went on to play the rather annoying psychiatrist on TV’s M*A*S*H*.
Why the film is ‘about’ Arbus is a thorny issue, since there’s no trace of her actual work on screen (one assumes her estate objected to the production), and there’s no need for the photographer to be a character in it at all. In adapting Patricia Bosworth’s celebrated Diane Arbus: A Biography, screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson and director Steven Shainberg (co-conspirators on the James Spader-Maggie Gyllenhaal cult item, Secretary) dispose of the life story in favor of some weird speculation on what spurred her interest in oddballs and freaks. It would’ve been tactful to change the names and protect the innocent—especially considering Arbus is impotent as a box office draw—and let the romance between Nicole and Robert Downey Jr.’s hairy asthmatic play out as a fractured fairytale.
But Hollywood’s a kooky place and Nicole’s evolved into a true eccentric. Any attempt to apply logic or reason here will be an exercise in futility. Still, I stayed with it from start to finish…framed, of all places, in a nudist colony. When Nicole’s asked by the chief nudist to try to refrain from getting an erection, I didn’t bat an eye. It was a slow night.