For a movie about the pinup wonder of an era, “The Notorious Bettie Page” is surprisingly tame, an exuberant performance from Gretchen Mol in the title role going to waste in an uninvolving account.
Considering the air of menace, decadence and deviance underlying director Mary Harron’s previous films, “I Shot Andy Warhol” and “American Psycho,” her take on bondage queen Bettie comes off as frivolous and inconsequential.
Harron tosses in a few technical tricks, mainly a couple of clever montages, that briefly enliven the film. But given the many years Harron and screenwriting partner Guinevere Turner spent honing the script, the characters and story feel oddly detached.
Bettie’s good Christian values and naughty S&M persona are juxtaposed in detail, yet presented with a skin-deep dramatic sensibility that offers little insight into the woman or how she really felt about the strange dichotomy of her life.
And despite the subject matter, it’s not even a terribly sexy movie.
The film frames Bettie’s story through flashbacks as she waits to testify before a Senate panel investigating the effects of pornography on young people (in a fleeting role as the senator leading the charge, David Strathairn is unctuously self-righteous in an engaging twist on his liberal-minded performance as Edward R. Murrow in “Good Night, and Good Luck”).
Fitful, hurried sequences lay out Bettie’s early life as a bright student growing up in a God-fearing family in Tennessee during the Depression. Then comes a bad marriage to an abusive husband and a horrid encounter with a group of men that would leave most women in need of a decade of therapy.
Yet Harron touches on the harsh moments of Bettie’s life almost dismissively. Bad things happen in a flash and are immediately forgotten, and the film moves on to a rather sleepy and dispassionate account of how Bettie innocently went from mainstream modeling to fetish poster girl in 1950s New York.
A part-time photographer (Kevin Carroll) discovers Bettie and rearranges her black hair into the swooping bangs that became her famous hairstyle. Introduced to camera clubs, Bettie becomes a favorite model for underground photographers who shoot racy photos for men’s magazines and private collectors.
Eventually, she lands in the company of Paula Klaw (Lili Taylor, star of “I Shot Andy Warhol”) and her half-brother, Irving (Chris Bauer), who complete Bettie’s makeover as a star of fetish, bondage and dominatrix movies and photos.
Mol’s Bettie views it as childlike play-acting, brandishing a whip at a bound woman or wearing kinky shoes with impossibly high heels and laces. Viewers have little clue to what the real Bettie Page felt about her notoriety; only belatedly, and superficially, does the film touch on the conflict between her Christian faith and her prurient image.
The film has a jumble of shooting styles — mostly black and white designed to resemble old movies, with lush color interludes and a few cheesy sequences recreating Bettie’s Super-8 footage.
The transitions sometimes are jarring and often are pointless. Does the supersaturated color that takes over during Bettie’s trips to Florida signal a visit to her own private “Land of Oz”? It seems more like filmmaker gimcrackery, though Harron does use color effectively in a montage of Bettie’s magazine covers.
Among the supporting cast, Jared Harris is the standout as a lovably impious photographer who works with the Klaws.
For Mol, “The Notorious Bettie Page” is both a triumph and a minor tragedy — triumph, because she’s such an infectious and sprightly figure as Bettie; tragedy, because she deserves a better movie to showcase her performance.