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Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Nair Do Well"
1 stars

As a photographer, the late Diane Arbus had a gift for revealing both the beauty hidden within what most people might consider grotesque and the hideousness within what most might consider to be beautiful. In either case, she presented her subjects with the kind of strikingly unique style that forced you to react in some way, be it rapture or repulsion, to what she had to show you instead of letting just stare at them passively. You would think that anyone trying to make a film on her life would at least try to capture that spirit but the mind-boggling mish-mash that is “Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus” not only fails to pull such an act off, it doesn’t even make a token effort towards that end. Instead, director Steve Shainberg presents us with two solid hours of pretentious nonsense that somehow manages to do the impossible–it gives us a boring movie about Diane Arbus.

To be fair, “Fur” is not a straightforward biopic, as you can probably glean from that ungainly please-don’t-sue-us subtitle. Instead, Shainberg and screenwriter Erin Cressida Williams, who previously collaborated on the cult favorite “Secretary,” has cooked up a largely fictional fantasia focusing on the three months before Arbus (played by Nicole Kidman) began her photography career. She seems to have everything a well-to-do Fifties hausfraus could desire–a successful husband in advertising photographer Allan Arbus (Ty Burrell), adorable kids and a lavish apartment to die for. However, from our first look at her, we can sense that she is one of those restless types who is silently chafing against her proto-Stepford Wife existence (yes,I am aware that is the second reference to a old Nicole Kidman film that I have dropped and yes, I will try to cut it out). In case there are some viewers who don’t quite get that, Shainberg helpfully underlines this point by giving us a scene in which she stand out on her balcony one chilly night and opens her dress so that she can shake free of those constraints and breathe, for heavens sake, if only for an instant.

While out there, she spies a mysterious new upstairs neighbor moving into the building under the cover of darkness. After discovering both an enormous wad of fur and a key jamming up her bathroom pipes (as the subtle imagery continues), Diane goes upstairs to investigate and meets Lionel (Robert Downey Jr.). Lionel is kind, witty and urbane. Lionel almost immediately senses that she is a restless type yearning to be set free from her petticoats and crinoline and whatnot. Oh yeah, Lionel is also, thanks to a mysterious ailment, covered from head to toe in a thick fur that gives him an unfortunate resemblance to that noblest of heroes, Chewbacca. Nevertheless, the two hit it off as each discovers in the other a kindred spirit and each one helps out the other–Diane brings her kids upstairs to help Lionel make wigs from his hair while Lionel introduces her to a midway’s worth of the oddball types that she would eventually present in oddly humane terms in her photos. Meanwhile, Allan grows increasingly restless and confused as well–while plainly disturbed by the parade of weirdos who seem to be parading in and out, he still loves his wife enough to begin to grow a ridiculous-looking beard in a pathetic attempt to recapture her attention. Needless to say, it all ends in tragedy but from that tragedy, we are to assume, Diane finds the inspiration to create her art.

With a conceit as daft as the one presented here, the only hope that a film like “Fur” could possibly have in succeeding is if it is put in the hands of someone willing to embrace the lunacy and take it as far as it can possibly go–someone like Ken Russell in his mid-70's heyday (when he made a film on Franz Liszt that actually ended with the composer swooping in on a spaceship to zap Richard Wagner, who had been killed and resurrected as a Frankenstein monster in order to massacre the masses while playing “Ride of the Valkyrie” on an electric guitar/machine gun) would have been an ideal choice. Alas, Steve Shainberg may be many things but he is no Ken Russell and after introducing such a whacked-out premise, all he does is offer us another riff on “Secretary” in which a repressed rich girl with a frosty home life becomes her own person by letting her freak flag fly under the guidance of one of the stars of “Less Than Zero.” He doesn’t even seem particularly interested in Arbus as a subject in the first place–we get no real sense of who she was, who she would become or how exactly her encounters with Lionel change or refine her perception of the world. Instead, he ladles on the freakiness just for the sake of being freaky and the whole thing has an exploitative feel to it that you never got from Arbus’s original work (none of which you actually see in the movie.)

You know you are in trouble when you set out to make a film on Diane Arbus and the notion of casting Nicole Kidman in the role turns out to be one of the least questionable aspects. That said, this is one of her least interesting performances that she has given to date because she is stuck in the role of a reactor throughout and never really comes alive or engages with anyone. Instead of a tortured soul who would find some kind of solace through her work until the demons within finally drove her to suicide, she comes across as a semi-desperate housewife who is more of a pill than anything else. Downey is a little more interesting as Lionel–he is one of those rare actors who can make even the dodgiest lines sing just by the way he delivers them–but even he has trouble pulling off the pseudo-soulful scribblings that he is forced to deliver here. Together, they strike zero sparks and their on-screen courtship–another trek to the “Beauty and the Beast” well–is meant to be poignant as all get out but the only genuine emotional response it will most likely trigger are barely suppressed giggles.

“Fur” is a movie that goes so wrong so quickly that there is a part of me that almost wants to suggest that you seek it out in order to see just how completely off the rails a film of this type can go. That approach to viewing it may work for those with a highly developed sense of irony but those of you looking for a film that explores Arbus’s life and work in anything other than the shallowest of terms are advised to look elsewhere. While I will give it a couple of points for nerve and ambition, the simple truth is that “Fur” sets out to be something strange and unique–imagine an “A&E Biography” directed by David Lynch or Crispin Glover–and instead winds up with what can only be described as a modern-day “Wired.”

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=15273&reviewer=389
originally posted: 11/17/06 00:57:25
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User Comments

3/18/16 Charles Tatum Bizarre & totally interesting 4 stars
7/30/13 fartvenugen How does Chewbacca take a dump? 2 stars
1/09/09 Anonymous. bizarre is one way to put it... 3 stars
6/01/07 nazanin sharafkhah weird & nothing to say& pointless 1 stars
4/22/07 Haridam Ultimately rather pointless 2 stars
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  10-Nov-2006 (R)
  DVD: 08-May-2007



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