A sour, undernourished biopic, “Mapplethorpe” is a disappointment just shy of a disaster — a portrait of a boundary-destroying artist that stays well within the safe borders of convention.
Mapplethorpe, of course, was the photographer whose work encompassed delicate beauty and the rawest, most provocative male nudity, blurring the lines between the two and daring viewers to respond. Many did with protests, which occurred after the artist’s death from AIDS in 1989 and are not the subject of director/co-writer Ondi Timoner’s drama. But Mapplethorpe’s photographs are scattered generously throughout “Mapplethorpe,” and their almost alien elegance is undeniable. They are supremely controlled works, and often great ones.
The photos and Matt Smith’s hard-edged playing of Robert Mapplethorpe are by far the best aspects of the film, even if the lanky Smith (a former Doctor Who for the BBC) is physically miscast — he lacks the demonic choirboy prettiness, as much a part of the mythos as anything Mapplethorpe shot.
Timoner, who has made several fine documentaries and tries out feature filmmaking for the first time here, gets off on the wrong foot with an unconvincing tour of downtown Manhattan at the very dawn of punk, with Marianne Rendón all wrong as a well-fed, wide-eyed Patti Smith. She and Mapplethorpe were lovers until his preference for men became too hard to ignore, a tale told with more wit and eye for detail in Smith’s 2010 memoir, “Just Kids.”
“Mapplethorpe” then descends rung by rung into a cursory depiction of the 1970s gay demimonde, as Robert eventually came under the protective wing of lover-curator-benefactor Sam Wagstaff (John Benjamin Hickey). The work, striking portraits of gay man in the nude, rampant and otherwise, is rejected by the New York art world — “He’s mad because galleries won’t show his [expletive] photos,” someone snipes — until Mapplethorpe starts shooting luminescent studies of flowers to get his foot in the door, resulting in two separate galleries showing the two distinct sides of Robert Mapplethorpe.
The personal drama is unvarnished and at times so off-putting as to make one wonder why anyone bothered. Mapplethorpe is portrayed as a user, a glory hound, a knowing AIDS vector, and sadistic in his treatment of family, friends, and lovers, including a worshipful younger brother played by Brandon Sklenar. As Timoner dutifully trots through the biographical stations of the cross, from the ’70s underground to fame during the Plague Years of the 1980s, her subject becomes harder and harder to relate to. There’s a way to frame great art and the problematic artists who make it, but ”Mapplethorpe” hasn’t figured it out.
Surprisingly, the film lacks much of a visual sense — the scenes are staged with almost generic straightforwardness — and the screenplay tends toward the programmatic (“There’s no keeping you out, Robert; you’re on the threshold!”) when it’s not simply dire (“New York is Patti’s piss factory, she’ll snap out of it,” says someone, clumsily referencing Smith’s first single).
There are one or two moments that land. Tina Benko is a gravel-voiced delight as one of Robert’s artist neighbors at the Chelsea Hotel, and McKinley Belcher III is very moving as the naive, faceless subject of some of Mapplethorpe’s most striking nudes. So, oddly, is Mark Moses (“Mad Men”) as Robert’s father, rigidly conservative and uncomprehending as he peers over the abyss into the unknown that is his son.
They’re the sole grace notes, along with a performance by lead actor Smith that belongs in a better film than this. And there are the photographs, of course. Gorgeous, filthy, serene, and strange, they still have the power to cross the wires of anyone willing to look.
Directed by Ondi Timoner. Written by Timoner, Mikko Alanne, and Bruce Goodrich. Starring Matt Smith, Marianne Rendón, John Benjamin Hickey. At Kendall Square. 102 minutes. Unrated (graphic nudity and acts, photographic and otherwise).
An earlier version included an erronious reference to the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.