Netflixable? The Good, the Bad and the Excessive — “Blonde”

Of all the projects Netflix hurled a ton of money at “for your consideration” this awards season, “Blonde” has to be the most troubling misfire. And thanks to Netflix’s deep pockets and lax supervision, it had plenty of competition.

I’ve liked Kiwi filmmaker Andrew Dominik’s other work. “Killing them Softly” and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” were two of the most interesting films Brad Pitt has lent his talent to over the years.

And who doesn’t adore Ana de Armas, the “Knives Out” breakout star?

But it’s obvious, from the two hour and 47 minute bummer that Dominik serves up, exposing and over-exposing de Armas in all her accented-but-looks-sort-of-right courage, that neither of them was right for this.

Still, “Blonde” is too ambitious and too important a cinematic subject to dismiss out of hand. Wildly uneven, misguided, bluntly exploitive at times, it also has moments of wrenching pathos and a mournful tone that will never let a film fan look at a Monroe movie the same way again.

So, well done there.

Perhaps the problem is relying on Joyce Carol Oates’ novel “Blonde” as its source material. Nobody would really want a straightforward Monroe biography, ticking off the red letter dates of the shooting star nature of her brief career, without insight, analysis and symbolic “understanding” of this fragile, damaged woman transformed into a sex symbol without peer. But Oates’ fictionalization goes too far, as does Dominik’s choice of what to emphasize and how to play it up. He begins with the moving trauma of an abused, orphaned childhood to being “discovered” and raped by Darryl F. Zanuck, beaten by husband Joe DiMaggio and cruelly and coarsely misused by John F. Kennedy.

“Daddy Issues” is the connecting thread and might be the most believable element to the film. But blending in fiction with fact — wasting all this screen time on a fictional long-running menage a trois with the bisexual sons of Charlie Chaplin and Edward G. Robinson — feels wrong, like one last act of Marilyn abuse. Is Dominik pandering to the polyamorous audience? Cut that fiction out altogether and you’d have a shorter, sharper and at least more defensible version of who she was, and why she was.

The opening act, with Lily Fisher playing the little girl who never knew her father, and trapped in the care of a psychotic mother (Julianne Nicholson) is the most heartbreaking thing I’ve seen on a screen this year. Mom’s madness in the midst of one of those disastrous LA fires, trying to drown the child her lover wanted her to abort, you watch this and marvel how anyone survives such trauma.

It’s also brilliantly conceived and filmed, a child’s eye view of Hell, literal and figurative.

The movie skips past Norma Jeane Baker’s orphaned childhood and her first marriage and treats her pin-up girl years — nude modeling included — mostly in montage. Her meeting with “Mr. Z” (20th Century Fox chief Zanuck) implies a quid pro quo audition that becomes a rape. It could’ve happened, but Zanuck was famous for hating her and only hiring her to keep another studio from snapping her up. T

Inserting de Armas as Marilyn into “All About Eve,” the first film most people noticed her in, and later into her comic classics, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and “Some Like it Hot,” is accomplished with technincal ease. Vanessa Lemonides does the singing of “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” and other Monroe signature tunes. Playing up the little-seen “serious” breakthrough film “Don’t Bother to Knock” is insightful, as the alluring and dangerous baby-sitter Monroe plays had to be triggering to a survivor of childhood trauma.

Two casting master-strokes pay off. Bobby Cannavale brings much more personality and volatility to seemingly courtly and shy suitor and husband Joe DiMaggio. Cannavale is downright electrifying when “Daddy” flies into rages over Monroe’s nude photo past and the blatant and eager exploitation that publicly filming her skirt-billowing-over-a-subway-grate scene in “The Seven Year Itch” entailed.

And Oscar-winner Adrien Brody brings a touching soulfulness to the playwright Arthur Miller, Monroe’s last shot at marriage, a man of art and literature and letters who is shocked, upon meeting “Norma Jeane,” at how the world is underestimating her.

That’s one of the running themes of “Blonde,” that Monroe weren’t the dizzy “sexpot” that the films that made her forced her to play. She was disturbed but in analysis, probably more skilled at character analysis than anyone gave her credit for and both a brilliant comedienne and an empathetic lead in dramas, at least the ones that let her tap into her personal tragedies.

Calling her husbands “Daddy” seemed more innocent at the time, but takes on sad undertones here. And the theme of lost childhood spilling over into lost babies (an abortion, miscarriage, grief and guilt) is played up, perhaps overplayed.

Jumping back and forth from black and white to color is kind of a wasted effect here. Dominik would have been doing the viewer a favor by lightening the mood with such shifts, or lightening the mood literally anywhere. The film’s cardinal sin is how relentlessly downbeat it is. We get little sense of what made her special. No, it wasn’t just her sex appeal.

Yes, she became too delicate to handle in her post-stardom films — calling in sick, not knowing her lines (not shown here), demanding retakes, flying into crying jags or rages. But surely there had to be tender moments when some of this sudden stardom and fame could be fun.

“My Week with Marilyn” wasn’t a lie, after all. And rewatching the adorably-dated “golddiggers at sea” romp “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” you can’t tell me the friendship that developed with co-star Jane Russell on and off screen in that production didn’t produce affectionate laughs. Jane would’ve made sure of that, and the evidence is on the screen, even if “Blonde” chooses to play up how misused Monroe felt at earning her contract minimum for a blockbuster like that, while Russell had her biggest payday.

Dominik instead accentuates the negative, making the tragedy of Monroe’s end seem inevitable. The fact that he has de Armas nude in most of the decline-and-fall third act gives the lie to some of Dominik’s protests that what Americans want and expect from a Monroe biography don’t reflect her reality.

The New Zealander didn’t “get” her, not all of her, anyway. And indulging his desire to exploit her by over-emphasizing and fictionalizing and stylizing (the NC-17 JFK encounter) the way Hollywood and America exploited her doesn’t excuse the ugliness he wallows in as he mistreats an icon who deserved better.

Rating: NC-17, violence, explicit sex, nudity, profanity

Cast: Ana de Armas, Lily Fisher, Julianne Nicholson, Bobby Cannavale and Adrien Brody, with the singing voice of Vanessa Lemonides.

Credits: Scripted and directed by Andrew Dominik, based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates. A Netflix release.

Running time: 2:47

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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