Diane Arbus made a name for herself by trying to make the normal look peculiar and vice versa. Many of her pictures detail "freaks" in very calm, classical poses and spaces. When Steven Shainberg
got the notion to cook up a fictional story about how Arbus got her inspiration for her photographic portraits, this had to be on his mind. Somehow, this notion creates an inventive misfire.
Shainberg imagines Arbus, played by Nicole Kidman
, as a faithful housewife, very self-conscious of her strange stares and off-putting manner. She's also a devoted assistant to Allan (a superb Ty Burrell
), her photographer husband who captures the poppy pastel colors of 1950s dresses and various appliances for catalogs. Her life gets a shock of electricity when she catches the eye of a strange neighbor named Lionel (Robert Downey Jr.
). Lionel was featured in a freak show when he was younger as a dog boy, scientifically diagnosed as hypertrichosis. The relationship that builds between Arbus and her hairy friend accounts for her artistic awakening and liberation of feminine constraints. Article continues below
The metaphors are heavy: right after seeing Lionel for the first time, hair clogs up Diane's (it's pronounced Dee-Ann) plumbing along with a small key that opens his door. Shainberg's compositions are full of color and genuinely look pretty, but there's a severe lack of freakishness here. Most of the set design and the camerawork seems pulled from some tropical-flavored Tim Burton piece with hints of Lynchian noir. It's in every restaurant, bar, and funeral home (don't ask) Lionel and Diane visit. The film looks quirky enough, but in the realm of a truly strange person, it seems shockingly proper. Not surprisingly, the truly bizarre images are those of the serene place-settings that Diane's husband shoots.
Shainberg's first film, Secretary, seems a comfier fit for Arbus. The erotic, perverse emotions that Arbus (self-admittedly) felt from taking the pictures of these people and from the people themselves (Lionel) seem to be muffled and given out only in small dabbles. Kidman's blue opals often hint at the vast dunes of wayward thoughts underneath Arbus' plain exterior, but it doesn't add up. Kidman plays Arbus with her entire wanting, but she is severely miscast as the dark, bleak creature. Downey is exceedingly apt for Lionel, speaking in his patented art-teacher-on-meth spurts and letting his eyes dart under the mounds of fur that cover his face for three-quarters of the film.
In its reach for wanton grandeur, Fur doesn't necessarily bore but rather confounds in its attempt to present a perverse life without really getting too strange. Arbus called art "a secret about a secret," and it's possible that Shainberg is purposefully holding us at arm's length to intrigue us. Fascination is a hard beast to wrangle and, at moments, Fur has it but it never enraptures the viewer into this willful world that Arbus existed in. It makes her peculiar world look extremely normal.