Monday, October 10, 2011

New York Film Festival: Simon Curtis's My Week With Marilyn (Centerpiece Selection)

My Week With Marilyn (Centerpiece Selection)
A Film By Simon Curtis
United Kingdom

            My Week With Marilyn, a messy comedy of sorts that’s more enamored at its star than it needs to be, opens with a recreation of a song and dance number from There’s No Business Like Show Business. There’s Marilyn Monroe, all jazzed up, singing “Heat Wave.” We then break out of it and into the cinema onto the face of the young Colin Clark. He looks up in awe in the way that us plebeians always glorify our stars, and if you don’t understand his love, then you can’t understand Ms. Monroe.

            That’s not to put down the great star who made splashes whether on screen or off, becoming one of the most recognizable names and faces of her era. Like Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles, My Week With Marilyn attempts to view a giant star through the eyes of a small man who can only see the genius. The similarities end there, despite a tonal disposition to direct everything with a light foot and a skip in the wind. Some of this comes from issues with the script by Adrian Hodges, based on a pair of memoirs by Mr. Clark (yes two whole memoirs for one summer with a star!) and director Simon Curtis, who isn’t exactly sure how to handle the more serious moments. But much of the issue is the perspective of the film itself, which tries to throw Ms. Monroe from such a limited point of view, instead of giving us real access to the person behind the face.

            That person behind the performance at least is worth more than the price of admission, the young and adventurous Michelle Williams. It seems like an odd star turn for Ms. Williams, who seems more suited for the naturalistic and reserved performances in films like Wendy and Lucy and Blue Valentine that populate her filmography. But Ms. Williams effortlessly recreates that magic and spirit we know from her films and interviews, going in full-on extrovert mode to charm us over with a performance that is very much a performance. A sly moment late in the film occurs when Marilyn whispers to a character, “Shall I be her?” just as she comes upon a group of adoring fans.

            But the film is certainly the story of Colin, played by newcomer Eddie Radmayne, a young and naïve boy who scores a job on the latest film by Sir Laurence Olivier, played with sound and fury by another Shakespearean thespian, Kenneth Branagh. Oliver and Monroe are two very different type of actors (Colin unfortunately spells it out for us right on the nose), and Marilyn comes prepared to become a series actor by bringing along her acting coach, Paula Strasberg (wife of Lee, one of the founders of method acting). Of course, the film is a light comedy called The Prince and the Showgirl, driving Olivier and the rest of the crew mad as they deal with the chaos that follows Ms. Monroe.

            Colin of course can’t take his eyes of her supple body, and Monroe does little to temper his young libido, eventually turning him into an adoring little puppy to carry around, despite a much more pretty girl more suited for him (an underused Emma Watson). Colin, like all young hapless boys, thinks he’s in love with Monroe and can’t resist her charm, even though everyone around him (a collection of character actors including Dominic Cooper, Julia Ormond, and Judi Dench) tells him he’s over his head. But he sees Marilyn differently. Only he understands her.

            This sort of pretentious perspective aims to collectively destroy the witty charm that Mr. Curtis is best at creating. Whenever the film dips into its melodrama and asks us to consider the star as a person, Mr. Curtis awkwardly evokes inauthentic sympathy, and even Ms. Williams, so fun and charming in the lighter scenes, seems confused on how to treat the essential Monroe underneath the façade. Perhaps if Mr. Curtis and Ms. Williams decided to make a real biopic of Monroe (the film refuses to acknowledge Monroe’s tragic end during the film’s coda). When Mr. Linklater brought Orson Welles to life, he only had to show the first sparks of genius that was too come. By highlighting the height of her stardom, My Week With Marilyn attempts to make sure that we are aware of the genius of Monroe, with every character highlighting their own theory at each point, instead of letting us observe that genius.

            However, when the film let’s us have fun with the star, and watch Olivier go barking mad, My Week With Marilyn delights in its complete revelry as we get to see the insanity and wit of movie making through the eyes of male ingénue. The movies are a magical world, and the stars the lights that blind us to their faults. And when you’ve got the brightest star of them all, there’s always a lot of myth, but not that much truth.    

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