TV Review: Mary Harron’s ANNA NICOLE Lifetime Movie Is Surprisingly Okay

Mary Harron gives us the Cliff's Notes version of Anna Nicole Smith's life, one tabloid page at a time.

The opening scene of Anna Nicole is a montage of the star (played by Agnes Bruckner with immense help from the pushiest push-up bra ever created) walking down red carpets through the lens of paparazzi cameras. Flash. Smile. Flash. Wave. Flash. That signature laugh and red lipstick. Flash. Anna Nicole's corpse, lying still and white on a sterile table. And then her voice over guides us through her life, trying to help us understand where and when and how it all went so wrong. Anna Nicole was born into this world as Vickie Lynn Hogan, and one day while her mama was at work, she found a stack of Playboy magazines under her mom's bed. Her mom's boyfriend comes home and sets off to molest Vickie Lynn's sister, and in the mirror, the reflection of a beautiful, Marilyn Monroe-esque blonde woman calls to her. "I'm Anna Nicole," the reflection says. Clearly Mary Harron has seen the 1996 HBO movie 'Norma Jean and Marilyn,' which theorizes that Marilyn's personality was split into two distinct halves: the girl she was (Norma Jean), and the girl she became (Marilyn), and her self-inflicted torment in trying to reconcile the two.

Unfortunately, unlike that film, Anna Nicole offers little in the way of depth or understanding of this celebrity. The biggest revelation is that one night, Vickie Lynn put on some make-up to go bowling, and her mama locked her in her bedroom in an attempt to protect the teen girl from making the same mistakes she did. Bowling is the gateway activity to teen pregnancy in the small town of Mexia, Texas, apparently.

From there it's a hop, skip, and a jump through a greatest hits collection of Anna Nicole's life. She's a young woman with a son who gets kicked out of her trailer park home and forced into stripping to make a living. Pills and champagne are casually supplied by her peers, setting off decades of prescription drug abuse and alcoholism for the future starlet. In fact, pills and champagne are seemingly the only recurring motif in her life, as dependable as a sensible sedan. She meets J. Howard Marshall (Martin Landau) and, much to his son's chagrin, marries the ailing octogenarian after he proposes to her several times. She becomes a Playboy model, all the while hesitant to disrobe. She wanted to be famous, but everyone just wanted her to take her clothes off. Anna Nicole becomes the face of Guess when a company executive artlessly tells her, "You are every man's fantasy. We want you to be the face of Guess." She meets a shady lawyer named Howard K. Stern (Adam Goldberg; how did this happen?), who sees something "special" in her -- but really he just sees dollar signs every time she gets drunk and high, a circus act he can exploit until Anna Nicole is able to successfully defeat her husband's cartoonishly evil son (Cary Elwes) for her rightful portion of Marshall's estate.

But you knew all of that. If you had a television or glanced at the cover of a tabloid, you know just as much as the writers of this film. The Anna Nicole Smith saga and tragedy was a cheap, theatrical reproduction of the life and times of Marilyn Monroe. Like some christ-like Monroe figure, Vickie Lynn entered the tomb of a strip club and re-emerged as Anna Nicole, baptized in wrinkled wads of cash and champagne. Anna Nicole was a fascinating figure: the epitome of our obsession with baseless celebrity and our desire to watch a slow-moving trainwreck in real time. Like Monroe, Anna Nicole was a neglected little girl who desperately wanted fame so everyone would know her name. Like Monroe, Anna Nicole had an affinity for pills and booze. Like Monroe, Anna Nicole took off her clothes and posed for some photographs to help launch her career. And like Monroe, Anna Nicole had trouble reconciling her true self with the celebrity she created. And like Monroe, Anna Nicole died of a prescription pill overdose, sad and alone. But the similarities were hardly accidental, especially considering that Anna Nicole had her husband rent out Monroe's old house for her to live in for a brief period of time.

But unlike Monroe, Anna Nicole never found respect or true admiration. She never became a major star; instead, she was little more than a circus attraction. The film takes great care to show us that everywhere she went, pills and champagne were waiting for her. Those who needed Anna Nicole to perform knew what it took to persuade her. Just a couple of pills and a glass of champagne, and her clothing would magically disappear. This, in and of itself, is tragedy enough, and I suppose if you're making a film for someone who managed to avoid tabloid culture for 10 years, it might be poignant. Aside from her mother not allowing her to go bowling so she wouldn't "wind up balling some guy in a Buick," we discover that much of Anna Nicole's notorious reality show was likely an act -- quelle surprise. She knew she was being used, but E! offered her a spacious, and -- most importantly -- free home, and all she had to do was tap into some of that smalltown wackiness that had endeared her to so many fans. But there is a massive divide between being laughed at and being laughed with, and it was so rarely the latter for Anna Nicole.

Anna Nicole is a tragically breezy flipbook, culled together from the pages of tabloids and pixels of video clips that have immortalized the starlet. There is perhaps too much story to tell, resulting in a two-hour television event that feels like the inevitable clip episode of a sitcom, constantly jabbing us with a rigid finger, obnoxiously asking, "Hey, do you remember when this happened?" Harron's direction is, undoubtedly, a cut above typical Lifetime fare and not nearly as tone-deaf in its execution, but there is little subtlety, particularly in the final frame, as we watch Anna Nicole walk into the bright white light to her own personal heaven: camera flashes and a cacophany of adoration from a faceless crowd, who asks nothing of her but to exist. The most glaring travesty is the scene in which Anna Nicole debuts her new breasts at the strip club, grafted onto Agnes Bruckner's petite frame with alarmingly awful CG. Her breasts are embellished throughout the remainder of the film with sensible push-up bras, and, in at least a couple of scenes, one of the most immaculate prosthetic appendages I've ever seen.

But the bulk of the film feels like Ouroboros, given the network on which it's presented. A film about celebrity earned through nudity and the core values of reality television, on a network that celebrates tabloid culture and awards celebrity status to those who do little -- if anything -- to deserve it. Lifetime purports itself to be "television for women," but most of its "original programming" is against women, painting a scathingly crude portrait of the worst female behavior and encouraging us to revel in it. Its films are no longer the soapy, melodramatic tales of women being victimized and overcoming a patriarchal system; instead, all Lifetime films are "ripped from the headlines" tabloid bullshit, continuously buying into, selling, and perpetuating an industry that seeks to systematically engage women in self-cannibalization.

I'd like to think Mary Harron has an understanding of this, particularly given her own struggles in a male-dominated system. I'd like to think Mary Harron understands the significance of a film about a celebrity whose value was defined by her body, and her worth approximated by the stupid things she did and said under the purposeful influence of alcohol and drugs. Maybe Harron sees how the very things that made Anna Nicole famous were the things that she willfully let devour her, and telling this particular story on a network that reaps the benefits of such high-profile, slow-moving tragedies isn't without poignancy. The executives at Lifetime, like the people who exploited and enabled Anna Nicole, see dollar signs, but they've inadvertently and perhaps unwittingly allowed Harron to tell a story that significantly undermines their goals. Anna Nicole isn't a great movie, but the symbolic nature of it being produced by and aired on this particular network is a beautiful example of cognitive dissonance -- it is at once both astoundingly crass and baffling in its inadvertent importance.