Documentarian Ondi Timoner’s first stab at a narrative feature, “Mapplethorpe,” suffers the same biographical-fiction pitfalls that doomed “Bohemian Rhapsody” — a by-the-numbers chronological depiction of a famous life, sapped of much of the passion and controversy that made that life interesting.
Well, at least this one didn’t gloss over the gay sex.
Timoner chronicles the rise of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, from the late 1960s to his death from AIDS in 1989, at the age of 42. It starts with Mapplethorpe (played by former “Doctor Who” star Matt Smith) dropping out of ROTC at the Pratt Institute — his father’s idea of an education — to live as a starving artist in Manhattan, rooming with fellow artist and girlfriend Patti Smith (Marianne Rendón). Mapplethorpe dabbles in painting and collage, cutting up stolen beefcake magazines for the sexually frank images.
Eventually, Mapplethorpe and Smith (well before her rock-star days) talk their way into an apartment in the Hotel Chelsea, haven for artists of all stripes. One of their new neighbors, Sandy Daley (Tina Benko), suggests that Mapplethorpe shoot his own photos, and hands him his first camera, a Polaroid.
Soon his Polaroid images attract the attention of a wealthy art collector, Sam Wagstaff (John Benjamin Hickey). Wagstaff also is attracted to Mapplethorpe, and they begin an affair. When Smith catches them in bed, she breaks up with Mapplethorpe and moves out.
Flash forward a couple years, and Mapplethorpe is starting to gain attention in the New York art scene, with Wagstaff as his sugar daddy. Some of Mapplethorpe’s images — like his pictures of flowers and celebrities — are catnip for most galleries. Only the most daring are wiling to display his confrontational and frankly sexual pictures, like his portraits of patrons of New York’s leather bars.
The scenes penned by Timoner and co-writer Mikko Alanne (who worked on “The 33”), adapting a Bruce Goodrich script, feel like the most basic biopic material. Mapplethorpe rises to the top, falls into a spiral of drugs and rampant sex, rejects his family (namely, his kid brother Edward, a photographer, played by Brandon Sklenar), and becomes a bigger jerk than he was before. None of this feels revelatory, or much of a challenge for Smith to portray.
Timoner’s approach embraces the genius of Mapplethorpe’s art — the best parts of the movie are when she just shows his images — while downplaying the controversy they generated. In fact, that controversy may be the most cinematic thing about Mapplethorpe’s work, but the biggest scandal, when his touring retrospective was canceled at D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery and brought an obscenity charge against a gallery director in Cincinnati, happened after his death and is therefore mentioned only in end-of-movie title cards.
The movie was supported by the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, and its interests in preserving its namesake’s legacy may be in opposition to what a movie audience would find worth watching. So we get a deeply flawed biographical drama in “Mapplethorpe,” a dry retelling of the artist’s life with much of the passion kept at bay.
Opened March 1 in select cities; opens Friday, April 5, at the Tower Theatre (Salt Lake City). Not rated, but probably NC-17 for graphic nudity and sexuality, also drug use and language. Running time: 102 minutes.