While the real-life odyssey of outsider photographer Robert Mapplethorpe is fascinating, Mapplethorpe, the biopic by filmmaker Ondi Timoner, leaves something to be desired.
The film doesn’t linger on much of anything long enough for heavy punctuation: a quick snapshot of his school days, meeting Patti Smith in the park, moving to the Chelsea Hotel, discovering his photography skills. These defining moments pass quicker than you can take them in; the only consistent thread is the lifelong struggle between Robert (played here by Matt Smith) and his father. Yet even this relationship doesn’t seem important enough, all things considered, to warrant any emotional investment on our end. Chances are you won’t get much out of this cinematic take unless you know absolutely nothing about Mapplethorpe the man.
The issue is not that Mapplethorpe is an affront to the artist’s legacy or an outright mess, it’s that nothing feels particularly illuminating or resonant. For a subject as raw as Mapplethorpe, the movie gives off a vibe that’s a bit too sanitized, too safe. All biopics can be this way, but you do have to wonder, given Timoner’s documentarian background, why she opted for a narrative feature. If it’s because James Crump recently made a documentary about Mapplethorpe and Sam Wagstaff in 2007 (Black White + Gray), then the question becomes: Why make this movie at all?
External circumstances further complicate matters. While the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation gave its blessing to the filmmakers, Patti Smith did not. And anybody who knows the history of Mapplethorpe and Smith would consider that a red flag.
Having read Just Kids (Smith’s telling of their story), it’s impossible not to draw comparisons between the two. Smith’s book is an autobiographical work; the film is a color-by-numbers tall tale. At one point the dramatized Patti Smith, played by Marianne Rendón, triumphantly declares that the two of them will one day be great artists, a character leveraging what we the viewers know on the other side of history. But Just Kids paints a far bleaker picture, and it’s hard to take Mapplethorpe too seriously with the book in the back of your mind. While the real Patti Smith made our stomachs ache with descriptions of her perpetual hunger, a literal starving artist who could only delight in the rare cup of coffee down the street, the version here is too in-the-know. It makes the whole tale feel disingenuous.
To his credit, Matt Smith does a solid job portraying the photographer, leaning into Mapplethorpe’s lifestyle and never shying away from the shittier aspects of his personality. It’s refreshing to see the silver-screen spin on the life of a genius balanced with the truth about what a prick said genius could be. That said, Smith’s performance doesn’t do enough to make this movie worth the time. You’d be better off diving into Just Kids and getting the story—and a better version at that—straight from the source.
Director: Ondi Timoner
Starring: Hari Nef, Matt Smith, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Marianne Rendón
Theater: Now playing, Lagoon Cinema