- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 16, 2006

Biopics can be some of the most formulaic of films.

You know the drill: Talented outsider fights the odds to emerge with well-earned success.

“Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus” is anything but a traditional biopic (the word “imaginary” in the title is one clue). But the story it does tell — which may or may not bear any resemblance to the inner life of photographer Diane Arbus — turns out to be a surprisingly conventional one.

Director Steven Shainberg and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson, who previously collaborated on 2002’s “Secretary,” have created a fictional story about the American photographer, who was born in 1923 and killed herself in 1971. Their goal, it seems, was to imagine how such a singular talent might have been born.

They find the locus of inspiration, that moment when Diane Arbus the woman became Diane Arbus the artist, in New York City in 1958. Arbus (Nicole Kidman), a privileged young mother from a wealthy family of fur dealers, is stylist and assistant to her husband, Allan (Ty Burrell), a successful fashion photographer.

Arbus’ life seems picture-perfect. But she’s deeply unsatisfied with it, without even understanding why.

“Even our own children think I’m strange,” she tells her husband.

He suggests she finally take photos with the Rolleiflex medium-format camera he gave her years before. But until the arrival of a new neighbor, Lionel Sweeney (Robert Downey Jr.), her imagination isn’t piqued.

Lionel is one of those freaks we recognize now as the perfect Arbus subject — he’s covered in hair from head to toe. This strange man introduces the 1950s housewife to a world of misfits she’d barely dreamed about. It’s one she’d eventually expose to the world.

As Arbus, a hard-working Nicole Kidman delivers another thoughtful portrayal of a singular artist. Carter Burwell’s slightly magical score even sounds a bit like Philip Glass’ for “The Hours,” in which Miss Kidman played author Virginia Woolf. Mr. Downey, barely seen for most of the movie, makes the most of a pair of very expressive eyes. And casting agents should be knocking on Mr. Burrell’s door.

Befitting a film about an artist, “Fur” is a visual feast. Production designer Amy Danger has created a look unlike any other this year: 1950s repression bursts into a modern “Alice in Wonderland,” a transformation illustrated in the striking contrast between the traditional Arbus apartment and the strange wonder of Lionel’s underground life.

Mark Bridges’ costumes provide similar visual reinforcement of the story. As Arbus casts off her role as a housewife and mother in favor of that of an artist, her clothing changes along with her, from dreary gray jumpers to colorful, dramatic dresses befitting a flamboyant artist.

It’s in showing this choice Arbus must make — between her family and her ambition — that “Fur” shines. Shots of a filthy kitchen and abandoned children remind us that great art always has a human cost, especially for the female artist.

But making a movie about a process as mysterious as the creation of art is difficult. In “Fur,” we rarely see Arbus taking a photo. Instead, the film ultimately turns out to be a somewhat formulaic love story. Arbus’ work often had a sexual element to it. In implying, however, that Arbus needed a sexual relationship as a muse, the filmmakers have done the artist — and the audience — a great disservice.

**

TITLE: “Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus”

RATING: R (graphic nudity, some sexuality and language)

CREDITS: Directed by Steven Shainberg. Written by Erin Cressida Wilson inspired by the biography by Patricia Bosworth.

RUNNING TIME: 122 minutes

WEB SITE: www.furmovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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