'Blonde' review: Dizzying (and brutal) Marilyn Monroe biopic offers no light
Courtesy of Netflix
Offering a hazy and low-grade Baz Luhrmann-esq interpretation around pop culture’s most instantly recognizable celebrity, writer-director Andrew Dominik’s NC-17 rated “Blonde” takes some bold swings and star Ana de Armas certainly earns her paycheck, but the airless art-house movie decor which inhabits most of the films nearly three-hour runtime sours momentum. Monroe’s celebrity and fame isn’t new to the big screen: from Michelle Williams’ Oscar nominated turn in “My Week with Marilyn” to Liz Garbus’ “Love, Marilyn,” not to mention the countless documentaries and books, there isn’t much about her life that general audiences don’t know. Then it becomes a question of what Dominik can bring to an already much discussed topic and while there are elements reminiscent of his far superior “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” Dominik’s overlong, episodic and near scatterbrained take on the actress leaves plenty of potential on the cutting room floor.
“Blonde” portrays Monroe in a rather jarring light: showcasing, for long stretches of times, her in the nude, getting raped, and as a disturbed, mentally unstable individual with serious daddy issues. There’s hardly any joy in “Blonde,” something Dominik has been vocal about in the film’s press cycle (hence the NC-17 rating). But it’s one thing to fully embrace the harsh rating, and another to earn it: I’m not sure there's much here that warranted the stamp, although there’s one scene involving John F. Kennedy that surely agitated the MPAA ratings board.
The film opens with a bleak lens of Monroe’s childhood (known then as Norma Jeane) with her raging, alcoholic mother (“Mare of Easttown” standout Julianne Nicholson) scolding and trying to drown her in the bathtub. It leaves the young starlet with some PTSD, and an endless obsession with the dad she’s never met (though never unearthed, Monroe had thought Clark Cable was her father at one point). Rather than exploring these important milestones or her rise into stardom, “Blonde” smash-cuts to the adult Monroe, now a full-blown sex symbol, beaming with energy, the signature dimple, and loads of charisma. That is until she walks into a studio head’s office, and they have their way with her. One of the many instances where the tone switches on a dime, creating a sense of dread whenever Monroe shows the slightest hint of happiness.
Based on Joyce Carol Oats 2000 novel that clocked over 750 pages, Dominik scurries through Monroe’s life in rapid-succession, surprisingly finding enough time to hit the major touchstones: there’s her abusive marriage to Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) and then a much healthier though still doomed courtship to Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody); 2022 recreations of scenes from “Some Like It Hot” and “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” are thrown in; plus the aforementioned appearance of JFK which is a scene that won’t easily be shaken and practically serves as a metaphor for how poorly Monroe was treated. And just how much she was misunderstood.
These brief glimpses create a whirlwind viewing experience that undervalues Monroe’s aspirations. She often talks about becoming a professional actor with an eye for serious roles (she was a big fan of Chekov) and to have children, though Dominik’s version prances her around like a mournful dog and pony show. It’s as if Dominik didn’t realize what caliber of talent he was working with because De Armas has shown an immense and sturdy screen presence (her ten-minute stint in “No Time to Die” almost stole the show and she added levity to something as silly as “The Gray Man”), but she’s consistently held back from exploring the character beyond hallucinatory drug binges.
Instead, Dominik plays around with fetus imagery (to signify the children she would never have) straight out of “2001: A Space Odyssey” and tries replicating some of the manic chaos Luhrmann conjured in “Moulin Rouge,” but his “Blonde” ultimately paints a picture that’s light on hope and heavy on despair.
BLONDE opens in select theaters Friday, September 23rd and debuts globally on Netflix Wednesday, September 28th.