The gap between a star performance and the movie containing it is rarely wider than in “Blonde,” which features Ana de Armas stunningly capturing the look and essence of Marilyn Monroe in the service of a film that’s pretentious, heavy handed, and lengthy. Netflix will surely get its money’s worth attention-wise thanks in part to its restrictive NC-17 rating, but the film’s merits burn out long before its credits ever roll. Adapted from Joyce Carol Oates’ novel about the Hollywood icon by writer-director Andrew Dominik (“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”), the movie works from the premise that not only did the frozen-in-time star suffer because of the men around her, but also society (that is, us) that leered at her even during the pre-Internet age. It’s not a fresh take or a wrong one, but it’s presented in such an overbearing manner as to blunt any insight into Monroe’s life.
Blonde begins with the very young Norma Jeane (Sasha Lane), who is placed in the care of her mentally disturbed mother but later forced to give her up. The mother never stops pining for the father she didn’t know, while seeking to replace him with famous men who wooed, wedded and exploited her daughter.
Norma Jeane became Marilyn Monroe, but she often spoke of her star persona in the third person as if it were a separate entity. The irony is that even though the New Zealand-born director labored to humanize Marilyn – after numerous movies about her life, including several for television – this version fares best at replicating scenes from her films. De Armas and the staggering hair/makeup/costume work present those moments so uncannily (occasionally mixed with footage of Monroe’s co-stars) that you have to blink to make sure it’s not the real thing.
The film gruelingly drags on through unhappy interludes of the actress being used and abused, oscillating between color and black-and-white imagery in a way that feels arbitrary. Dominik deals with Monroe’s lost pregnancies by peeking at the fetus inside her, which becomes symbolic of just how overdone much of the movie is. Those excesses can’t entirely eclipse the fearless and vulnerable nature of de Armas’ portrayal, or that it received an NC-17 rating for its sexual content (a guidance suggesting only adults be admitted to theaters) rather than its grimness. Then again, those factors seem surer footing when contemplating the film’s overall grimness than its sexuality; several supporting roles are also impressive, with Bobby Cannavale and Adrien Brody as Monroe’s husbands Joe DiMaggio (shown grimacing while shooting “The Seven Year Itch”) and playwright Arthur Miller, respectively.
Yet despite being almost entirely about de Armas’s character, the movie is still worth watching. Her performance as Monroe is so convincing that you can’t help but feel sad when she lies to DiMaggio and says that she’s always been happy. The film was released in theaters for a short period of time before going on Netflix, where it will probably be watched more often. It’s 2 hour and 46 minute length means that it can be difficult to watch, especially if you need to take frequent breaks. Once you get past admiring de Armas’ performance, the film offers no other surprises.