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Case Number 11293

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Fur: An Imaginary Portrait Of Diane Arbus

New Line // 2006 // 122 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Brendan Babish (Retired) // April 30th, 2007

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All Rise...

Appellate Judge Brendan Babish hasn't seen an actor with that much body hair since Robin Williams took off his clothes in The Fisher King.

The Charge

A journey that will unlock her deepest secrets and awaken her remarkable artistic genius.

Opening Statement

Following the $17 million plus payday for the underwhelming Bewitched, Nicole Kidman tries to made amends with her portrayal of Diane Arbus in the offbeat, understated Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus.

Facts of the Case

For those unenlightened people unfamiliar with her career (of whom I include myself), Diane Arbus (Kidman) was a photographer who gained renown in the 1960s for her photographic portraits of individuals on the margins of society, such as prostitutes, dwarves, giants, etc. Fur is an fictional account of the real-life transition Arbus made in the late 1950s, when she separated from her husband and suddenly became inspired to launch her career as a photographer.

The movie begins with Diane as the frustrated wife/assistant to Allan Arbus (Ty Burrell, Down in the Valley), a successful commercial photographer. While on the verge on a nervous breakdown Diane meets her new upstairs neighbor, Lionel Sweeney (Robert Downey, Jr., A Scanner Darkly), an intriguing, soft-spoken man who is afflicted with hypertrichosis, a disease that causes excessive body hair (kind of like Teen Wolf, but without the superior basketball skills). Instead of recoiling, Diane befriends Lionel, becomes inspired by him, and their relationship changes both their lives.

The Evidence

Nicole Kidman has made some very uninspiring career choices, but also—for one of Hollywood's highest paid actresses—takes on some daring roles. The Stepford Wives and Bewitched stand out in particular as films one would imagine a serious actor would stay away from. However, these bland, conventional choices are more than made up for by the string of small films she's starred in in recent years—odd movies that probably wouldn't have been made if not for her participation. Quietly, without much fanfare, Kidman has emerged as probably one of the most interesting superstar actresses working today.

Still, she hasn't received much credit for taking huge pay cuts to star in Birthday Girl, Dogville, or Birth (okay, she got $15 million to star in Birth, but this was still a risk) because none of these movies are very well-regarded. Or rather, I should say, none of these films have received widespread artistic recognition. I make the distinction because I have a lot of affection for Birthday Girl and Birth; two very flawed but very interesting films. In particular, I think Birth is one of the most interesting films I've seem in the past few years: a dark, completely humorless thriller about a woman who believes her dead husband might be reincarnated into an 11-year-old boy. This is an idea that could have been played for laughs (as the similarly-themed Chances Are was), but instead everyone in the cast is unflinchingly earnestness. Yeah, the idea is ridiculous, and the plot has several holes, but its originality and boldness won me over when I first watched it, and I am still searching for other admirers, so far in vain.

Much like Birth, Fur's flaws are obvious, but it is so earnest, original and stylish I can't help deeply admiring it as well. The film's biggest assist is—fittingly—that it's beautiful to look at. Director Steven Shainberg's previous film was the stylish Secretary, and here he further develops his gifted cinematic eye by not only flawlessly recreating 1950s New York, but also an (perhaps apocryphal) underground community of social outcasts. And with a kitschy and classy set design and provocative shot selection, this is a film that will probably reward a second viewing with the soundtrack on mute.

Fur is also an effectively subtle motion picture; subtle movies are rare enough these days; effectively subtle rarer still. And of course this subtlety works especially well here because the story is so eccentric. A movie in which one of the romantic leads has 90 percent of his body covered in fur has inherent drama built in—it doesn't need histrionics or hysterical swooning. Kidman and Downey—who are both so good here—don't even need dialogue; they can communicate everything with a shift of the eye or a shallow breath. Sure, this will probably exasperate impatient viewers, but those who are intrigued by the story will be paying rapt attention.

However, one of the only criticisms I do have involves a pretty clear contradiction between the film's message and Nicole Kidman's personal sensibilities. I don't want to sound licentious, but Kidman simply cops out several times by not taking off her clothes. In an early scene Arbus—in a fit of domestic anxiety—rushes out to her back deck and tears open her shirt, exposing herself. On the commentary track Shaneberg claims this is based on real incidents in which Arbus would bare her naked body to neighbors. The only problem is that Kidman's Arbus keeps her brassiere on—and those brassiere from the 1950s were quite bulky. Later, when Arbus visits a nudists' colony, Kidman is only shot in close-ups and uses a body double for the rear shots. Now admittedly, Kidman does disrobe at a certain point in the film, when the scene really calls for it, but still, this is a movie about rejecting superficial conceptions, including anxiety over physical identities. In real life Arbus even took self-portraits of herself fully naked. I can't be too hard on Kidman, because surely her involvement is what secured the funding for this picture, but it's unfortunate when an artist allows her modesty to compromise what is otherwise an exceptionally strong, forthright work. (Honestly, it's not just because I want to see her naked.)

New Line has surprisingly put out a strong DVD package for a movie that received very little attention in the theaters. In addition to Shaneberg's insightful commentary, there are also deleted scenes with additional commentary by Shaneberg. However, what is most impressive is the exceptionally clear picture and sound on the transfer. For a domestic drama this film uses an exceptional color palate in its set design, and the bright and pastel colors are amazing to look at on the big screen. I'm not sure if this is the kind of movie you're going to want to use to show off your new TV to friends with, though, because its deliberately-paced plot isn't really a crowd pleaser. However, for a night in with your (hopefully eccentric) partner, you couldn't do much better.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

As much as I admire Kidman's work, I can't help but point out that something strange has happened to her facial appearance over the years. Ever since Eyes Wide Shut she's slowly become more and more classically beautiful, yet less human—not unlike the character she played in The Stepford Wives. I don't know what to think of this.

Additionally, on the subject of appearances, I wish New Line hadn't put a picture of a clean-shaven Robert Downey Jr. on the cover of the DVD. Throughout most of the film he is covered in fur and, while it certainly isn't a shocking plot twist, showing Downey without the hair does telegraph a plot point that's best left for the audience to discover while watching the movie, not browsing through the video section.

Closing Statement

I am well aware that Fur was thoroughly trashed by reviewers upon its theatrical release. I can see why, and I think many reasonable people are going to be turned off by this offbeat film. But this movie will find an audience on DVD, as long as open-minded, eccentric cinephiles give it a chance.

The Verdict

Not guilty. Now get a haircut, hippie.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 96
Audio: 95
Extras: 85
Acting: 89
Story: 93
Judgment: 93

Perp Profile

Studio: New Line
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• English
• Slovene
Running Time: 122 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Drama

Distinguishing Marks

• Commentary
• Deleted Scenes
• Trailer


• IMDb
• Official Site

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