A TV movie about the strange, short and ultimately tragic life of Anna Nicole Smith doesn’t exactly inspire great expectations. But Lifetime’s “Anna Nicole” disappoints both as a campy guilty pleasure and a movie with a surprisingly solid pedigree.
Lifetime didn’t get just anyone to bring Smith’s story to the screen. They landed Mary Harron, director of “American Psycho” and quirky, interesting biopics “I Shot Andy Warhol” and “The Notorious Bettie Page.” Unfortunately, the odd coupling of filmmaker and network doesn’t result in anything particularly memorable.
Harron gets decent performances from a strong cast — led by Agnes Bruckner’s game work in the difficult, nebulous central role — provides a low-key, dreamy visual style, and ensures that the drama never gets too exploitative or laughable, but she’s ultimately defeated by both TV movie conventions and the subject herself.
The narrative is standard little-girl-with-big-dreams stuff but Smith’s life was a series of minor peaks and valleys, aside from a trip to the Supreme Court in the never resolved battle for her deceased husband’s money. While she modeled for Guess, was a Playboy Playmate of the Year and had that short-lived E! reality series, Smith was mostly known for her marriage to a much older oil mogul, fluctuating weight, drug use and semi-pitiful status as a wannabe sex symbol.
That doesn’t mean there wasn’t more to her life than what the public saw, but “Anna Nicole” isn’t able to find it. And that’s a shame, especially in light of the wit, depth and spark Harron brought to the story of a pin-up in “Bettie Page.” Instead we just get a perfunctory rundown of Smith’s life, like a Wikipedia page in script form: As a struggling single mother she turns to stripping, meets James Howard Marshall II (Martin Landau), winds up in Playboy and gets hired by Guess, marries Marshall, wears her wedding dress to his funeral, gets involved with lawyer Howard K. Stern (Adam Goldberg) and battles Marshall’s son E. Pierce (Cary Elwes) in court, has a daughter with photographer Larry Birkhead, loses her son in a drug overdose and shortly after overdoses herself.
“Anna Nicole” hits all these beats dutifully and respectfully, only occasionally tipping over into “hot mess” territory when Bruckner-as-Smith dances on table tops with prosthetic breasts spilling out of a skimpy dress, guzzles champagne during her pregnancy or dons the infamous clown makeup in the Bahamas. It’s even more rare that the film locates a moment of raw humanity, like the handful of scenes with Virginia Madsen as Smith’s embittered mother.
The good news for everyone (except perhaps audiences gleefully anticipating a trainwreck) is that “Anna Nicole” is no “Liz & Dick” level disaster, and it’s certainly more thoughtful than last week’s sleazy “Jodi Arias: Dirty Little Secret.” But those are unnecessarily low standards, even for Anna Nicole.