Meandering, inoffensive biopic about 1950s pin-up queen Bettie Page, the sweet Christian gal from Nashville who went to New York to pursue acting and wound up the unwitting star of a legendary series of bondage photos for the brother-sister team of Irving and Paula Klaw.
Harron and cowriter Guinevere Turner don't have much of a story to tell, but it's hard to blame them for this film's general pointlessness: they and their appealing star Gretchen Mol (a slender blonde who, however charming, proves my theory that just about any woman can look like Bettie Page if you put a black wig with bangs on her) are just being true to the character. The fact of the matter is, the real-life Page wasn't too terribly interesting a person – at least not when she was a model. (There are stories about a crazed, middle-aged Page forcing her family by knifepoint to gaze upon a picture of Jesus, but there's nothing like that in this movie.) Unlike another 1950s inspiration for camp adulation, Ed Wood, Page didn't make much happen; rather, things happened to her – or, indeed, around her. So unlike the oddballs in Tim Burton's Ed Wood, Page isn't so much an eccentric character boldly making a name for herself as she is a generic innocent swept up in other people's affairs. Indeed, it can be argued that Page was just a pretty girl who took some naughty pictures. While she'd be a fun supporting character, she makes for a dull protagonist.
There are hints at a uniqueness in her personality – a non-drinking, non-swearing, deeply religious lady who nevertheless had no fundamental problems with nudity or sexuality – but instead of doing something smart and unusual with the story, Harron and Turner churn out an achingly ordinary biopic.
This is one of those cases where a bunch of people thought it would be cool to make a movie about a particular cult figure without asking themselves if there's anything worthwhile to say about that cult figure. I don't think this mattered to Harron, whose films are mostly interested in capturing a particular era in New York: the 1960s in her first outing I Shot Andy Warhol, and the 1980s in American Psycho, her defanged adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis's gruesome novel.
I Shot Andy Warhol worked because it had rich, bizarre characters who came to life on screen. American Psycho didn't because Harron was afraid to delve into the book's disturbing mindset. The Notorious Bettie Page follows along the path laid forth by its predecessor, long on kitschy period style (Mott Hupfel's cinematography deserves much of the credit, and the soundtrack is perfect for your swinger tiki parties) but short on everything else. It makes for a harmless, moderately entertaining hour and a half at the movies. If that's all you're looking for, great. But if you want any substance, move on.