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With: Matt Smith, John Benjamin Hickey, Marianne Rendon, Brandon Sklenar, Tina Benko
Written by: Ondi Timoner, Mikko Alanne, Bruce Goodrich
Directed by: Ondi Timoner
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 102
Date: 03/01/2019

Mapplethorpe (2019)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Robotic Erotica

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Matt Smith is effortlessly good, but his efforts are wasted in a numbing, by-the-numbers biopic, and the real Mapplethorpe's striking visual creations are blunted by a middling, timid presentation.

In Mapplethorpe, young Robert Mapplethorpe (Matt Smith) decides to drop acid and then drop out of college. He moves to New York and does odd jobs while trying to establish himself as an artist. He meets a young Patti Smith (Marianne Rendón), and they strike up a relationship, moving into the Chelsea Hotel together. A neighbor, Sandy Daley (Tina Benko), gives him his first camera, and he begins his career as a photographer. At the same time, he begins exploring his attraction to men, which he had been suppressing.

His photographs are a cross-section of beautiful, black-and-white celebrity portraits, flowers, and gay erotica, which completely baffles galleries. Meanwhile, though Robert has shunned his family, his worshipful younger brother Edward (Brandon Sklenar) becomes a mistreated assistant. As the 1980s roll around, Robert finds himself growing terribly ill, even as his work grows more celebrated.

Directed by Ondi Timoner, who made the excellent rock documentary DIG! (2004), Mapplethorpe is a surprising dud. It prompts the question: how could the filmmakers have looked at those lustrous photographs and then settled on a flat, lifeless, monotonous look and feel for their movie? It plods forward, driven by an unsurprising collection of pop songs and montages, each serving to highlight the current year.

Even more puzzling is the decision to actually show the more graphic photos, but at the same time, failing to grasp any kind of human sensuality among the characters; it's a chaste movie about a risque subject. All secondary characters drift in and out of the movie, serving only to react with and to the main character, and none of them coming to life on their own.

Smith is astonishing, adopting an accent and a swagger and an artist's obsession, but everything that happens around him serves to mute his work. Perhaps worse, no one seemed to realize that this particular progression of events makes Mapplethorpe look like a highly unpleasant person, and that it might be distasteful to spend these 102 minutes with him.

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