The gap between a star performance and the movie containing it has seldom been wider than in “Blonde,” which features Ana de Armas stunningly capturing the look and essence of Marilyn Monroe in the service of a film that’s pretentious, heavy handed, and lengthy to the point of exhaustion. Netflix will surely get its money’s worth attention-wise thanks in part to its restrictive NC-17 rating, but the film’s merits burn out long before its credits ever roll. Adapted from Joyce Carol Oates’ novel about the Hollywood icon by writer-director Andrew Dominik (“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”), the movie works from the premise that not only did the frozen-in-time star suffer because of men around her but also society (that is, us) that leered at her even before there was an Internet.
The film, “Blonde”, begins with a young Norma Jeane and her relationship with her mentally ill mother. The mother was forced to give up her daughter, returning time and again to the idea that she never stopped pining for the father she didn’t know. The film explores her relationships with famous men who wooed, wed and exploited her.
Norma Jeane, who became Marilyn Monroe, remained separate from her image, even when speaking about it in the third person. The irony was that, although the director of this film worked hard to humanize her, this version was most effective in depicting Monroe’s image through replicating scenes from her films. De Armas and the staggering hair/makeup/costume work present those moments so uncannily (occasionally mixed with footage of Monroe’s co-stars) that you have to blink to make sure it’s not the real thing.
Beyond that, the film gruelingly drags on through unhappy interludes of the actress being used and abused. Dominik also distastefully deals with Monroe’s lost pregnancies by peeking at the fetus inside her, which becomes symbolic of just how overdone much of the movie is. Those excesses can’t entirely eclipse the fearless and vulnerable nature of de Armas’ portrayal, but she’s probably right in contending that the NC-17 rating (a guidance suggesting only adults be admitted to theaters) is undeserved. Then again, the label seems on surer footing contemplating the film’s overall grimness than its sexuality. Several supporting roles are also impressive, with Bobby Cannavale and Adrien Brody as Monroe’s husbands Joe DiMaggio (again shown grimacing through “The Seven Year Itch” shoot) and playwright Arthur Miller, respectively.
Still, the movie is worth seeing for its lead actress, who is nearly as good as Monroe was in her prime. When she tells DiMaggio “I’ve been happy all my life” in Monroe’s honeyed voice, she catches the actress’s vulnerability and innocence perfectly. But unlike Monroe, de Armas doesn’t have any other characters to play; the movie is almost wholly about her work.