"Inspired" by Patricia Bosworth's biography of Diane Arbus, Steven Shainberg's tribute to the late photographer achieves heights of unintentional silliness that can erupt only at the intersection of ponderous seriousness and oddly limited imagination. 1958: High-strung Diane (Nicole Kidman) — the spoiled, insecure and frustrated daughter of status-conscious furriers (Harris Yulin, Jane Alexander) — and her husband, Allan (Ty Burrell), live with their two daughters in a rambling Upper West Side apartment. Photographer Allan, who specializes in fashion and advertising shots (Russeks, Diane's family's business, is one of his major clients), has a fully equipped studio in the apartment. Diane is his assistant, though he regularly encourages her to explore her own creative impulses — he even bought her a Rolleiflex that's been gathering dust for the better part of 10 years. Diane finds her muse in Lionel (Robert Downey Jr.), their mysterious new upstairs neighbor. Drawn equally by the exotic trappings of Lionel's life and the genetic anomaly that makes him look like a B-movie wolfman, buttoned-up Diane is soon shimmying out of her restrictive clothes and into Lionel's liberating world of dwarves, armless wonders, fetishists, sex workers and other marginalized individuals. The movie's overriding metaphor is, of course, fur, from the glistening, luxurious pelts that financed Diane's privileged but stifling upbringing to the damp tangles that start clogging the Arbus' pipes after Lionel moves in and the tatty-looking coat he eventually makes her from his own hair. Fur molds her, repels her and stirs up powerful, if contradictory, emotions: Diane is thrilled when Allan grows a beard but can't act on her attraction to Lionel until he's been shaved from head to toe. And it eventually emboldens her to abandon her family and start photographing the world through a filter of freakishness — the film opens and closes on Diane's excursion to take portraits of everyday nudists. The film's offbeat melange of influences includes Beauty and the Beast, Lewis Caroll's Through the Looking-glass (by way of Czech animator Jan Svankmajer) and the stylized 1960s sex melodramas of arty pornographer Joe Sarno. But a whiff of the ridiculous taints every scene. In the end, the sheer obviousness of Shainberg and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson's take on Diane Arbus' perverse determination to examine and document the forbidden overshadows even Kidman's beautifully modulated performance, which takes Diane from brittle neurosis to a vaguely predatory ingenuousness.
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- Released: 2006
- Rating: R
- Review: "Inspired" by Patricia Bosworth's biography of Diane Arbus, Steven Shainberg's tribute to the late photographer achieves heights of unintentional silliness that can erupt only at the intersection of ponderous seriousness and oddly limited imagination. 1958… (more)