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Rated 2.98 stars
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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Diane and the Freaks
by Jeffrey Chen

That a movie titled Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus is being released now feels all too appropriate. This year, more than most years I can recall, we're seeing quite a few daring fictionalized accounts of real people, from the speculative Hollywoodland, to the anachronistic Marie Antoinette, and even to accounts of very recent events involving people both dead (United 93) and still living (The Queen). It's as if the movies are trying very hard to remind us they are fiction -- they're not here to tell the literal truth, but to communicate ideas and create emotions we can relate to.

In that sense, Fur's ambition seems quite noble and, obviously, plainly stated. It's not a biographical account of photographer Diane Arbus, but a fanciful story written to express the spirit of an artist. While the idea is great, unfortunately, the execution is something else entirely. 

The story the filmmakers (which include director Steven Shainberg and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson) decided to tell involves the pivotal moment when Arbus's (played by Nicole Kidman) artistic passions are awakened. As the film begins, she's the wife of studio photographer Allan Arbus (Ty Burrell), mother of their children, and relegated to politely being his assistant while always having that nagging feeling of unfulfillment. Soon, a new upstairs neighbor (Robert Downey Jr.) wearing a full head mask moves in and Diane's curiosity is piqued. So begins her relationship with a man who turns out to be an ex-circus-performer with a freakish condition, and who soon reaches out to her own inner freak.

The story written here is logical -- so logical as to be too simplistic. Arbus was known for her photos of physically marginalized people, or those we might term "freaks." So she must have identified with her subjects; thus, a very deep and unexpected friendship with a freak creates a turning point that sends her on her life's calling. And that's pretty much it.

On the one hand, Shainberg and Wilson were probably trying to create a fairy tale with very direct themes, a la a slightly twisted version of "Beauty and the Beast." On the other hand, Arbus was surely a complex personality and should have been given credit for it. Here, she's practically presented as a cipher, a disaffected creature who's nudged and nudged again by Downey Jr.'s character, named Lionel. The Arbus character is, for the most part, passive, and Kidman's performance doesn't really help. The talented actress  seems to be on auto-pilot in her breathy, whispery mode here, and given every opportunity to show the depths of her affection by being seen gazing at anything. We don't get a trace of Arbus's artistic talent in the movie, and she doesn't seem that interesting as a person. Lionel is the one given a more complete story arc and more attention to depth (and here Downey Jr. does his best to retain a dignity under make-up that sadly looks sillier than it was surely meant to be).

Shainberg obviously has an affinity for people who live on the edges of society's norms. His last movie was Secretary, wherein Maggie Gyllenhaal's depressed character discovers a joyous side to life when she encounters a boss who indulges in particular fetishes. Fur emerges as nearly the same story, but the degrees of assertiveness within the characters are reversed. In Secretary, Gyllenhaal first is awakened, but then she becomes the active one in her pursuit of happiness. Her character takes up the controls and the movie comes across better for it -- the "freaks" exercise their right to live their lifestyles.

In Fur, Arbus finds out she feels at home with the freaks as she hangs out with Lionel and his physically different crew, which includes little people, a giant, Siamese twins, and a capable woman with no arms. They're presented amusingly and lovingly by Shainberg. It becomes clear that he's more interested in championing their cause than in delving into what made Arbus tick, what was behind the artistry in her photography. Instead, he uses Arbus possibly as a sort of surrogate for himself -- someone who identifies with the freaks and wishes to show them support. It's a decent idea but it probably would've worked better being entirely fictional, instead of as An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus in which the being of Diane Arbus doesn't seem to matter as much.

(Released by Picturehouse and rated "R" for graphic nudity, some sexuality and language.)

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