You know, sometimes I really do second guess myself on this blog. I’ll post a review and think maybe I’ve been too harsh or missed an important detail. I’ll link to my YouTube videos and honestly wonder if I’m crossing the line into shameless self-promotion. And this year, I can say with no reservation that I’ve considered abandoning “This Film is Not Yet Watchable” as a monthly feature. This is partly because I’ve watched three films so far this year that turned out to be really good despite me thinking that they looked like crap from the trailers, those being Top Gun: Maverick, DC League of Super-Pets, and Barbarian.
That can be simply written off as bad advertising on the part of whoever made the trailer, I’ll grant. Part of the purpose of the column is to pre-judge the movie based on what I see and rate the actual sales pitch in real time. But on the flipside of things, there’s the “Redemption Reel,” where I specifically highlight a trailer that comes off looking spectacular or important. Even if the movie isn’t among the best of the year, there’s at least something noteworthy that tells me, “Okay, you’ve made your sale. I’m in. This is gonna be good.”
Well, at this point I’m sincerely questioning if my ability to analyze this stuff might be faltering, because I feel like I’ve been duped for the second time this year. It’s one thing for a movie to be somewhat subpar while still featuring the cool stuff that made me preemptively endorse it, like Army of the Dead, but there’s a limit. And just like The Princess, which turned out to be comically chintzy when I finally saw it, last month’s “Redemption Reel,” Blonde, joyfully cartwheels beyond that limit, making it by leaps and bounds one of the worst films of the year.
All the pieces were there. You had Ana de Armas, one of the biggest rising stars in Hollywood, an actress who seems to only get better with each role, and one who’s demonstrated a fairly unique ability to embody different types of characters. You had Andrew Dominik, who has a pretty fantastic eye for story and scene. You had the ambition of using multiple shooting techniques, lighting designs, color schemes, and aspect ratios, implying a visual metaphor for Marilyn Monroe’s turbulent life. More importantly, the trailer heavily suggested a story where Norma Jeane would get to tell her side of history in an almost Citizen Kane-esque manner (albeit adapted from a fictional novel by Joyce Carol Oates), granting new insight into one of cinema’s most tragic and mysterious icons. And of course, we got the genuine intrigue of the film being the first ever on a streaming service to accept an NC-17 rating from the MPA, making us imagine what envelope-pushing risks could have warranted it.
That trailer sold audiences a bill of goods, because absolutely none of that promising stuff is in this movie. The final product is pedantic, gratuitous, visually inept, and wastes one of the most talented actresses working today. I’d almost be impressed if it wasn’t also shameless Oscar bait trying to disguise itself as something profound.
First off, the overall acting in the film is just atrocious. Some critics are praising Ana de Armas for her portrayal of Marilyn Monroe, but this is something of a trick that happens far too often in Best Actress Showcase movies. She gives a competent performance, but it’s nothing special. Essentially she does what just about every other actress to play Monroe has done, which is a breathy impersonation. She has a couple of moments where she rises above the material, but for the most part de Armas plays Marilyn as the same naïve ditz.
The con is in the rest of the casting and performances, which are so unconscionably bad that de Armas looks like Katharine goddamn Hepburn by comparison. Call it the cinematic equivalent of a D.U.F.F. In early scenes with a young Norma Jeane (Lily Fisher), her mother Gladys is played by the otherwise fine Julianne Nicholson giving a performance so wooden that when they drive towards a literal fire, I expected her to ignite. Lines like, “Do you remember who slept in this drawer, Norma Jeane? You did. You slept in here. It was your crib. And it was good enough for us” feel too stilted for even a Lifetime Movie of the Week, much less a potential Awards Season competitor. Bobby Cannavale, another strong performer, plays Joe DiMaggio as a stereotypical abusive Italian husband, right down to the wife-beater shirt. I genuinely was waiting for him to shout, “Shut up-a your mouth!” at some point. Xavier Samuels and Evan Williams are so completely interchangeable as the sons of Charlie Chaplin and Edward G. Robinson (Marilyn joins them in a throuple) that in my strain to find something positive I almost want it to be an intentional choice on Dominik’s part, saying that by living in their fathers’ respective shadows, neither one has any distinguishing qualities of their own. Adrien Brody appears to have been ordered to play Arthur Miller as a more mumbling version of Woody Allen. Let me repeat that. Academy Award winner Adrien Brody is reduced to a Woody Allen impression as Arthur fucking Miller!
The presentation is a complete mishmash of nothing ideas that go nowhere and have no bearing on anything. I mentioned the use of differing aspect ratios and an alternation of color versus black-and-white. This could have been put to very artistic use as a visual representation of Monroe’s mood, life circumstances, or even the various media she dominated during her short career.
But there’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. The film opens with two widescreen shots before smash cutting to 4:3 within the very same scene. Color flits in and out like a busted old television. There are literally shots where the aspect ratio is smartphone portrait mode. Late in the film de Armas walks around topless with a Steadicam around her waist, just because. One of the few sustained widescreen color shots is a sex scene where Marilyn is on the brink of orgasm, leaning over the side of the bed and holding on to the mattress, and then that very mattress and the entire bottom half of the shot dissolve to the “gushing” Niagara Falls. Not only is that bafflingly stupid, it just screams that whoever edited that shot just learned After Effects that day. What could have been a poetic use of interchangeable views instead comes off like a lazy film school student who used a different camera every day because he was the last one to show up at the tech cage to rent out the equipment.
The only consistent element of the film’s visual portfolio is also its most offensive. And honestly, this is where I’m guessing the NC-17 rating came into play. Sure, there’s a fair amount of nudity and sex (consensual and non), but not nearly to the level of other movies that get this dubious rating. Hell, Basic Instinct and 9 1/2 Weeks were essentially softcore porn for large chunks, and they both escaped with an R, so believe me when I say, the sex is not what did it.
No, what really sealed the deal was the abortion stuff. If you’ve never seen it, there was a brilliant documentary that came out in 2006 called This Film is Not Yet Rated, which explored the secretive nature of the MPA (then the MPAA), as well as their very prurient priorities. Essentially, much of the membership are “family” people who identify themselves as religious, and in that very narrow context, they want to “protect children” from what they deem inappropriate. That’s why violence is okay, but not blood. That’s why saying the word, “fuck” more than once gets you an R. That’s why nudity and sex can be okay, so long as the female form is as covered as possible and there are no indications that the woman is actually enjoying herself. Seriously, the idea of a woman cumming is tantamount to ritual human sacrifice in their eyes.
So, with that in mind, my theory is that the NC-17 comes from the fact that the one uniform element of the film is Marilyn’s multiple pregnancies, none of which go to term, and all of which use CGI to depict her fetus as a fully-formed baby in her womb, a baby she talks to, and who literally talks back to her. I’m not making this up.
Planned Parenthood denounced the film as anti-abortion propaganda, and in the vast majority of cases like this, my instinct is to roll my eyes. Because 99% of the time the complaint – no matter who it comes from – is meaningless, has little or nothing to do with the actual quality of the overall movie, and comes off as just a bunch of idiots wanting to hear themselves talk. If you have an opinion on the skin tone of mermaids, for example, you are part of the problem.
But here’s the thing, Planned Parenthood has a legitimate gripe here. There is no evidence that Marilyn Monroe ever had an abortion, and if so, who cares? She did have three miscarriages when she was married to Arthur Miller, but that’s all anyone knows for sure. However, for this movie’s purposes, it’s not just that she has abortions, it’s how she has them. At one point she gets pregnant, is excited about the idea of motherhood, but then decides to terminate after visiting her own mentally ill matriarch (Nicholson goes from being wooden in the opening to intentionally catatonic afterwards). When she gets into a hired car to go to the appointment, she changes her mind, but the abortion is forced on her. Really. At the premiere of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, as the theatre rises to applaud her, she mutters to herself, “For this, I killed my baby.” When she gets pregnant a second time, the fetus – using the same voice as the first one – begs Marilyn not to hurt her again, like she did the last time, and claims that they’re the same baby. After she’s raped by John F. Kennedy – not an affair, JFK literally rapes her – the Secret Service breaks into her house to force another abortion on her, which may or may not have been a drug-induced hallucination. And just for good measure, when these procedures happen, they’re photographed from inside Marilyn’s uterus, with the forceps intruding through her cervical wall, like a spike poking through rubber, to open her up.
If that’s not a direct message, I don’t know what is. Not only does it portray a fetus as a baby, which just scientifically it is not, especially not at the non-showing stages of the pregnancy that Marilyn is in, but it’s personified to the point where it’s begging not to be murdered. And then, when it happens, it’s a forced act of violence, a bogeyman that the anti-abortion crowd has put forward for decades. It’s beyond exploitative, is in extremely poor taste, and it’s not done for any real plot or thematic purpose. So yeah, the idea of “killing babies” and extreme close-ups of a woman’s naughty bits? That’s why this is NC-17, and nothing more.
All of this adds up to the core problem of the film. It insists upon itself as being a feminist portrayal of Marilyn, but it ends up defeating its own purpose, because every major development only serves to rob her of agency. Everything in the movie happens to her, rather than her doing anything. Her mother tries to drown her, studio executives and the motherfucking POTUS rape her, she has “living babies” forcibly removed from her body, she’s never taken seriously as an actress, she’s beaten by her brute of a husband, the only moment of happiness is taken from her when she’s advised to break off her polyamorous relationship. In all things, she is the victim, the damsel in distress, rather than having any control over her life and making any real decisions for herself.
Alongside this, almost every action is motivated not by a thirst to prove herself, but by a desire to be loved by an absentee parent. Tygh Runyan voices her unseen “tearful father” who writes to Marilyn, apologizing for abandoning her and her mother while Gladys was pregnant and promising to meet in person one day. The entire raison d’être of Marilyn’s career is to find out who her dad is, as Gladys only briefly showed her a picture of him and claimed he had a studio job. She literally calls her two husbands, “Daddy,” which, ew. For what it’s worth, this part probably did happen in real life, as there are interviews to confirm it, but why is this the factual hill Dominik wants to die on? He clearly had no problems making other stuff up, like the abortions, so why not spare us this cringe? This is just as gross as Ronald Reagan and Mike Pence calling their wives, “Mother.” And for what it’s worth, the resolution to this plot point is the most manipulative piece of manufactured father-daughter garbage I’ve seen this year, and that’s counting Don’t Make Me Go.
So 60 years after Monroe’s death, where does this film leave her? It promised an in-depth look at her life, an assertive declaration of self-worth, and a chance to clear the record in sensationalist fashion, redeeming her legacy. Instead, this version of Marilyn Monroe spends basically the entire film as a victim of abuse, a perpetually confused drug addict, and a sex object with severe daddy issues.
Essentially, Andrew Dominik turned one of the most revered figures in film history into the worst kind of porn star.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s the biggest disappointment you’ve seen after a promising trailer? Should we all just agree to give Ana de Armas a mulligan for this one? Let me know!