Blonde (2022)

Monroe doctrine

By Al Alexander

In 2021, journalist Adam Serwer published a chronicle of the Trump administration titled “The Cruelty Is the Point.” The appellation might better suit writer-director Andrew Dominik’s “Blonde,” a vicious assault on movie legend Marilyn Monroe so unrepentant it could compel Bernie Taupin to add another verse to “Candle In the Wind.”

Ugly, morose and, yes, cruel, “Blonde” is not a celebration, but a smear of a 60-years’-dead icon whose life was traumatic enough without Dominik further exploiting the fragile existence of Norma Jeane Baker. Instead of perceiving her as the survivor she was, Dominik sees only a victim, so desperate to be loved that she sacrificed Norma Jeane to the fictional persona of Marilyn Monroe. It made her a star loved by millions the world over, but it was a Faustian bargain destined to destroy the sad little girl cowering in the shadow of the sexy, confident, lovable alter-ego of her own creation. But is that all there was to it?

Dominik seems to think so, in taking his cue from Joyce Carol Oates, whose 1999 source novel, “Blonde,” predated the #MeToo movement by nearly 20 years. In it, she employs impressionistic supposition to create a surreal take on how Norma Jeane viewed not just Marilyn, but also her enablers, from predatory studio bosses to lovers who delved no deeper than her outward beauty, while failing to recognize her intellect and talent. None of this comes as a surprise to Monroe’s legion of fans. Dominik knows this, which is likely why he joins a tedious procession of wolves still stalking what remains of a flamed-out superstar.

In the process of emphasizing sensation over compassion, Dominik (“Killing Them Softly”) squanders a serviceable Marilyn impersonation by Ana de Armas. I say “impersonation” because that’s essentially what her portrayal is in failing to capture the charisma and essence that was Marilyn Monroe. Much has been made about casting a Hispanic actress in the role, but that didn’t bother me as much as the shallowness of the character she’s been apportioned. It’s pretty much one note, with Norma Jeane repeatedly being victimized by the Hollywood machine. Boy, that’s original!

The only attempt to get inside Norma Jeane’s head involves a lame plot device that has her forever searching for the “Daddy” she never knew. According to “Blonde,” this was her driving force, her mission, her undoing. It’s an interesting approach – in theory. But on screen, it registers as cheap and cliched, a misery-laden succession of debasements depicting rape, humiliation and mental and physical abuse. To believe “Blonde,” there was not an ounce of joy in this poor woman’s existence; only sadness and self-loathing.

It dismisses with equal harshness the substitute “Daddies” passing through her life, including the likes of husbands, Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) and Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody); JFK (Caspar Phillipson); and friends with benefits, Charlie Chaplin Jr. (Xavier Samuel) and Edward G. Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams). The latter two offer the opportunity for Dominik to display Armas in the nude as much as possible, likely because he has nothing else to show us. It’s a double whammy, in that in addition to being sexist, it accentuates that Armas, while beautiful, is nowhere near as voluptuous as Monroe.

Still, she’s a credible choice for the part, and acts the heck out of the little she’s given to work with. As does young Lily Fisher in a handful of scenes in which we’re made privy to Norma Jeane’s horrific childhood under the oppressive reign of her mentally disturbed mother, Gladys, played chillingly by Julianne Nicholson. But again, Dominik goes for the shocking (Mom attempting to drown Norma Jeane in the bathtub) over the reflective. Instead of exploring the burdens of a single parent remaining afloat in Depression-era Los Angeles, the movie opts to mold Gladys into a monster.

It’s all too simplistic. And at a butt-numbing 166 minutes, “Blonde” is a bit of a slog, despite being sumptuously shot in both black-and-white and color, and presented by director of photography Chayse Irvin (“BlacKkKlansman”) in an array of screen aspects. Dominik has said his film’s distinct 1950s look was achieved by summoning an aura inspired by iconic photographs and newsreel footage, including the infamous flying-skirt scene from “The Seven Year Itch.”

It undeniably evokes a mood, and despite the movie’s many flaws, it’s seldom boring. Heck, even the ending is impactful. But there’s no escaping the fact that, like Norma Jeane’s naturally brown locks, most of the color has been bleached from “Blonde,” right down to the roots.

Movie review


Rated: NC-17 for some sexual content

Cast: Ana de Armas, Adrien Brody, Bobby Cannavale, Evan Williams, Xavier Samuel, Julianne Nicholson and Dan Butler

Director: Andrew Dominik

Writer: Andrew Dominik, based on a novel by Joyce Carol Oates

Run time: 166 minutes

Where: In theaters before debuting on Netflix on Sept. 28

Grade: C

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