STARRING: MATT SMITH; JOHN BENJAMIN HICKEY; MARIANNE RENDON; MCKINLEY BELCHER III
DIRECTED BY: ONDI TIMONER
AMovieGuy.com's RATING: 1 ½ STARS (Out of 4)
I scrolled through my OnDemand menu and found a documentary called Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures. I knew nothing about the subject matter, but I was glad that I took a chance on this film, because I learned about a person that changed the entire concept of photography as art. Robert Mapplethorpe isn't an artist whose works are collected on stamps or postcards, there is certainly a type of taste one must have for his style. What must be acknowledged is that his work was daring, provocative, and unique. Sadly, the biopic Mapplethorpe fails to capture any of that risk, in a bland, paint-by-numbers film that feels afraid to approach the artist, let alone touch him. Mapplethorpe fails the man at every turn.
The title character, played by Matt Smith (of Doctor Who fame), gives everything he can to embody the man and becomes weighed down by a script that reads like a Hallmark Channel movie. Robert Mapplethorpe was born into a conservative family, did a stint at a military academy, and eventually went out on his own in New York city. It was the 70's, a time where being an artist was a romantic life, where Robert lived in a small apartment with Patti Smith (Marianne Rendon), smoking weed, and finding the right inspiration to become the next Andy Warhol. Instead of painting though, Patti introduced Robert to a camera to take pictures with and I guess the rest is history, but Mapplethorpe's life was much deeper than just that.
I certainly give credit for a movie about Robert Mapplethorpe being made, but this is the type of person that deserves a fearless approach, and director Ondi Timoner seems to have forgotten that. Similar to the problems with 2018's Bohemian Rhapsody, a movie about an individual such as Mapplethorpe cannot be made with hesitance in his sexuality, his work, and his struggle with the AIDS virus. Any sense of risk is when Timoner decides to show Mapplethorpe's actual works, his images of gay men, draped in leather, bodies merging in ways that made the male figure look sculpted instead of photographed. His work should be viewed in art gallery's, not edited in-between contrived scenes of his personal life.
The casting of Matt Smith is not a mistake, he has a chiseled face that resembles Mapplethorpe without caking on makeup. The screenplay by Timoner, Mikko Alanne, and Bruce Goodrich divides the narrative between Mapplethorpe's prominent relationships, starting with Patti Smith, Mapplethorpe's longtime boyfriend, and eventual curator- Sam Wagstaff (played by John Benjamin Hickey), his brother Edward (Brandon Sklenar), and his obsession with muse Milton Moore (McKinley Belcher III). All scenes sound and play as wooden as a high-school play. No matter how much is revealed, we notice that everything is an act and unnatural. The material desperately longs for a touch of romance and honesty, which we never get.
In the end, Mapplethorpe is a sad failure. This is another example of how biopics seem like a good idea on paper, but become much more difficult to work in the end. The performance from Matt Smith is wasted and the powerful legacy of Robert Mapplethorpe is fumbled. It's better to leave his story told in a documentary and his courageous artwork in the halls of museums.
1 ½ STARS
Written by: Leo Brady