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Television Review

‘Anna Nicole’ looks good but is only skin-deep

Agnes Bruckner plays the title character in Lifetime’s “Anna Nicole.’’

Bob Mahoney/Lifetime

Agnes Bruckner plays the title character in Lifetime’s “Anna Nicole.’’

At points in “Anna Nicole,” the new Lifetime biopic, lead actress Agnes Bruckner seems to be engaging in some serious overacting. Her version of Anna Nicole Smith slurs her nonsensical words, walks like she’s on an inflatable floor, crawls up onto a bar. Her mascara is a panda-eye spectacular, although in one scene, as she natters on about how her baby bump is just a collection of gas, she lets a little girl with makeup give her a warped clown face. You wonder if Bruckner is pushing hard for “Valley of the Dolls” camp.

Then you start browsing YouTube, and you remember that Bruckner isn’t exaggerating at all. Smith, who died at age 39 in 2007, was truly an over-the-top wreck, a fact that, along with her enhanced breasts, became her professional calling card. In the YouTube clips, many of them from “Entertainment Tonight,” Smith is clearly out of her mind on drugs, alcohol, or, most likely, both. She is reckless and sloppy and sometimes on the verge of nodding. Watching her, you may find yourself wondering, once again, how anyone — her friends, her colleagues, the media — let her into the public eye in that condition. You may start to remember what a monster celebrity can be in the wrong hands.

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And you will have had a more interesting set of thoughts and feelings during that visit on YouTube than you will during “Anna Nicole.” The movie, which premieres on Saturday at 8, has nothing to offer. It’s storytelling at its most shallow and unsatisfying. Written by John Rice and Joe Batteer and directed by Mary Harron, “Anna Nicole” barely conveys the basic facts of Smith’s life, never mind any bigger ideas about her private terrors and our cultural demons. Bruckner is fine as Smith, and her prosthetic breastplate is quite impressive; but the script gives her nothing of substance or with resonance.

The narrative leaps through a few milestones in Smith’s life, without making any basic connections between them and skipping over a number of significant ones including her movie appearances. She is a little girl in Texas, named Vickie Lynn Hogan, gazing worshipfully at photos of Marilyn Monroe. She is a teen mom to Daniel. She is a pole dancer getting her breasts enlarged. She is practicing dance moves on a tetherball pole at the park. Octogenarian millionaire J. Howard Marshall gets wheeled into the club and is riveted. She becomes the face of Guess jeans, she meets Howard K. Stern, she gains and loses weight, Marshall’s son gets control of his father’s estate, she has a reality show, she has a baby, Danny dies, she dies. In a cheesy surrealistic touch that strains to add unity to all the disparate scenes, older Anna Nicole appears in mirrors to young Vickie Lynn, and vice versa, throughout the movie.

I’m certainly not suggesting that we need to know the fine details of Smith’s entire life story; she didn’t have enough talent to merit that kind of close scrutiny. But if you’re going to present a superficial “then this happened” story, you need to be a lot more deliberate and logical about it than “Anna Nicole.”

Oddly enough, Martin Landau appears in the movie as Marshall, uttering the movie’s best line, which Marshall says to Smith: “You make me feel like I’m 75 again.” Virginia Madsen is also on hand as Smith’s mother, and a nearly unrecognizable Cary Elwes plays Marshall’s son, who makes sure Smith gets no money from his father’s estate. I’m hoping that these established names thought they were signing on to a project with a little more depth, since Harron directed the more ambitious “American Psycho” and “I Shot Andy Warhol.” Could they have known it would be such a hollow venture?

There probably is a provocative and poignant movie to be made about the woman who was celebrated for being a train wreck, who was bait at a time when audiences had become more shark-like than ever before. “Anna Nicole” doesn’t quite address the question of whether Smith was the mistress of her fate, or the victim, a complex question that might have added some heft. It only answers the always eager call for tabloid spectacle.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached atgilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.
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