“Mad Men” was ostensibly a show about a man climbing the heights of Madison Avenue advertising over a decade’s course, from 1960 to 1970. But in many respects it wound up more compelling for ways in which its women characters negotiated a period in which society’s hitherto-strict gender role divisions began to wobble and crumble a bit. At the beginning, women were throwing themselves at Don Draper. Seven seasons later, they were throwing themselves onto paths of self-determination, leaving him to figure his own shit out.
Unsurprisingly, the starting point of that timespan remains a nostalgic focus for those who imagine that “the family” was better off then—or at least that the era’s women were more subservient and available, if only for lack of other options. Two major new movies look back towards this Eisenhower era to critique its principal (and just about only) female role models, the Perfect Housewife and the Ultimate Sexpot. Much-rebelled-against since, those roles still cast a very long cultural shadow, and the films in question get tangled up in simultaneously rejecting and fetishizing them.
The first anticipated-Oscar-hopeful-turned-major-misfire of the fall is, unfortunately, Olivia Wilde’s second directorial feature. I wasn’t as impressed by her first, the teen comedy Booksmart, as many viewers, but its brash confidence still promised much. Don’t Worry Darling isn’t just a sophomore slump, however, it’s also the kind of over-produced, under-developed, high-concept muddle that invariably a few fans (in the mode of Southland Tales, etc.) love for its eccentricity, but leaves everyone else somewhere between bafflement and annoyance.
Florence Pugh and Harry Styles play a young couple in a newly-hatched desert community where all the men do top-secret work for the “Victory Project” making “progressive materials,” whatever that means. The wives (including one played by Wilde) stay home being perfect 1950s-style hausfraus, forever serving up cocktails, appetizer trays, and themselves, in full makeup and cocktail dresses. But—insert ominous music here—is something wrong with this picture?
Of course there is, and in fact you’ve seen this picture before, most notably when it was called The Truman Show, The Stepford Wives, or Pleasantville. I like all those films very much; their themes are more relevant than ever at present, and there are certainly worse models to emulate. But Don’t Worry’s screenplay (by Katie Silberman, one of several writers on Booksmart) feels like a preliminary draft mashing up elements from these and other predecessors without having yet applied any binding narrative glue, or found its own distinctive personality.
Wilde compensates by directing every scene as if it were being excerpted in a master class, pouring on gratuitous stylistic flourishes, histrionics without context, and other forms of overkill that only underline the script’s lack of depth or substance. (Which is not to say Wilde’s design collaborators don’t provide an impressively sumptuous mid-century modern surface.) In the end, it’s simultaneously too garbled and simplistic to work as either paranoid fantasy or political allegory. The leads get stranded, asked to pull out all emotional stops for the sake of characters who remain one-dimensional. For all its stabs at surrealism and social commentary, this effortful feature ultimately is no more than a bad Michael Crichton movie in feminist clothing—one like Looker or Congo, a gimmick-driven failure.
Still, it’s not an onerous chore like Blonde, an adaptation (not the first—there was a 2001 TV miniseries) of Joyce Carol Oates’ 2000 novel about Marilyn Monroe. It is the kind of book that hews close enough to fact to be considered biography, but reserves the liberties of fiction in order to speculate, streamline, and try getting inside the subject’s head. Of course, the big question with MM is: Can such scrutiny tell us anything new? Haven’t 60 years of post-mortem obsession and exhumation already done enough? The contrast between her iconography as the still-reigning, all-time Celluloid Sex Symbol and the very messy pathos of her offscreen life has become its own cliche. What more can be said that isn’t just further exploitation?
Blonde can’t answer that question—it never transcends redundancy over almost three hours’ grueling, monotonous course. During which, one note is hit till you might suffer a viewer’s concussion: Monroe (née Norma Jean Mortenson) as helpless victim, first by the unstable mother (Julianne Nicholson) who abandons her, then by the succession of men who each take their pound of flesh while enabling her stardom, enjoying its celebrity, or simply ogling from afar. Fatherless, she seeks to fill that lack by calling every successive, ultimately-failed protector “Daddy.”
Among them are her husbands: retired baseball superstar Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale), who is painted as a jealous brute, and playwright Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody), who is more sympathetically drawn; JFK (Caspar Phillipson), who simply uses her as a sperm depository; 20th Century Fox chief Darryl Zanuck (David Warshofsky), likewise; and the sons of Charlie Chaplin (Xavier Samuel) and Edward G. Robinson (Evan Williams), with whom she has a three-way LTR she finds the most emotionally-fulfilling. That makes little sense, though, because as depicted, they’re just as obviously predatory as anyone else here.
While a native Cuban accent sometimes seeps through, and her oft-bared body type is more petite than the famously voluptuous MM, actress Ana de Armas (of Knives Out and 007 film No Time to Die) does an impressive job transforming into the title role. Those mannerisms are effectively reproduced, while makeup, wardrobe, and camera personnel conjure up a sometimes stunning facial resemblance. She gives a real performance too, not just a detailed impersonation. (Blonde itself does do a lot of impersonating, with minute recreations of famous photographs and movie scenes, sometimes digitally inserting Armas into an actual vintage clip.)
But the film is a largely humorless, claustrophobic 166-minute dead weight loaded onto her shoulders, in which she is too often being probed like a laboratory specimen in B&W closeup. No actor, or character, can move us when virtually every sequence is a “crying scene,” or at least the verge of tears. We get it: She’s an unhappy person. But in making Monroe entirely a victim, Blonde must excise nearly any trace of the drive and talent that got her to the top, as well as the endearing personality that kept her there. Surely she had the occasional good day on a set? Experienced joy in performance? The evidence is onscreen—not here, but in nearly every movie the real Marilyn made.
You can feel that director Andrew Dominik, whose prior films (Chopper, Killing Them Softly) were practically woman-free zones, believes he’s really cracked a code in placing the fabled object of desire under a dissective microscope. But this endless dirge of klieg-lit suffering soon feels like just another crass, noisy seance for a spirit that nobody will let RIP.
With extraordinary hubris, he’s claimed Blonde is “the best movie in the world right now,” which depresses not just because he’s wrong, but because his Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford really is a work of greatness. But that (equally-long) effort, which examines another key figure of American myth, offered a very big picture of both legend and its deconstruction. By comparison, Blonde is just nose-to-the-window ambulance chasing—so much so that near the end we’re treated to a shot of a speculum during an alleged forced abortion, our perspective actually inside MM’s vaginal canal. Good god, man: Give the lady a break already.
Two lesser-hyped new movies from women directors offer at least more positive takes on female self-empowerment, if limited degrees of greater insight. Hot on the heels of her poorly-received but sometimes very funny, definitely-adult comedy Sharp Stick, Lena Dunham is back behind the camera with the very different Catherine Called Birdy. Based on a popular YA novel by Karen Cushman, its titular heroine (Game of Thrones’ Bella Ramsey) is a 14-year-old in the 13th century and the sole daughter of English nobles Lord Rollo (Andrew Scott) and Lady Aislinn (Billie Piper.) She has half-brothers, so patriarchal succession isn’t a problem. But money is, because drunken, hapless dad has frittered away mom’s inherited fortune. That leaves Birdy (now of marriageable age, by the era’s standards) the sole commodity that might be auctioned off, so to speak, to generate some income.
An inveterate eavesdropper, prankster, and tomboy, she isn’t having that—particularly as the prospective suitors (one is played by Russell Brand) are such a repulsive lot. Still, this being the Middle Ages, she doesn’t have much choice in the matter. How she manages to preserve her relative independence through various intrigues comprises (along with a subplot or two) the film’s narrative.
The original book was praised for its period authenticity. Not having read it, I can’t compare. But suffice it to say, Dunham’s use of color-blind casting, soundtracked pop songs, and other anachronisms makes this less a credible view of a distant past than a largely-comedic, wish-fulfillment fantasy with a very modern sensibility. As such, it’s colorful, pleasant, and has several very genial performances. Yet it’s also forgettable in a way that the admittedly-uneven Sharp Stick (also a coming-of-age tale, in its way) is not.
The old saw of caterpillar-heroine-becoming-butterfly is recycled in Valerie Buhagiar’s Carmen. No operatic temptress she, this Carmen (Natascha McElhone) is the middle-aged sister of a dour priest (Henry Zammit Cordina) on the island nation of Malta, located in the Mediterranean between Italy’s toe and Tunisia. When he abruptly expires of natural causes, she’s summarily tossed out—despite having spent nearly all her life in the tiny church as unpaid housekeeper and caretaker. Indeed, the sister (Michela Farrugia) of the replacement priest is already expecting to fill her position.
But that new priest takes his time showing up, and without anywhere else to go, Carmen is hiding in the confession box one day when she is mistaken for him. She duly hears confession—and her advice, more Dear Abby than doctrinaire, seems a tonic to locals coping with abusive spouses, money woes, etc. Raiding the collection box (after all, she earned those donations), she gets a makeover, then acquires a prospective beau in the convenient form of younger Canadian-expat hunk Paulo (Steven Love).
Ostensibly “inspired by true events,” this 1980s-set tale is formulaic fiction, with McElhone transforming from ugly duckling to swan like a thousand movie heroines before her. The complications are trite, the ending implausible even by the low standards the film has set for itself. Still, it’s a low-key crowdpleaser whose cliches are soft-pedaled via a stylishly ascetic approach (echoing a culture and landscapes reminiscent of Sicily) that lends Malta plenty of picturesque travelogue appeal.
Don’t Worry Darling opens Fri/23 at theaters nationwide. Blonde opens in limited theaters (including the Opera Plaza and Presidio) on that date, then begins streaming on Netflix on September 28. Catherine Called Birdy opens in local theaters Fri/23, then begins streaming on Amazon Prime Video Oct. 7. Carmen is bypassing Bay Area theaters and going directly to On Demand platforms this Friday.