There's no snap to this movie about a real-life kinky pinup queen.
She was the pinup superstar of kitschy 1950s kink, Betty Grable with stiletto heels and a whip. Bettie Page had a playfully risqué quality, like the girl next door wearing fetish gear for Halloween. Whatever contrived scenario photographers placed her in -- trussed up in a cat's cradle of heavy cords, frolicking with wildcats in a leopard-print bikini, giving a naughty girl a disciplinary swat on the heinie with a riding crop -- Bettie's smile seemed as genuine and wholesome as sunshine.
"The Notorious Bettie Page" will doubtless please fans of the cheesecake queen's photographic work: Gretchen Mol has Bettie's iconic figure, camera flair and saucy, winking attitude. There's not much to entice audiences looking for drama, however. Bettie is as bland as she is beautiful, neither a wanton libertine nor a damaged martyr to male lust, but simply a perky, pious Tennessee gal who saw nothing wrong with peeling off for photographers. We learn the details of her unexceptional life, and while there are rough patches -- a strict father, a turbulent early marriage, a brush with sexual violence -- Bettie emerges unscarred, optimistic and unshaken in her faith. In New York City, where a chain of coincidences introduces her to photographers with specialized tastes, the naturally sociable Bettie befriended even the scuzziest of fetishists (Jared Harris, who gives a great performance as an effete British whip lover). Without the friction and turmoil essential to an engaging story, Bettie emerges as one of the nicest, least interesting characters you could meet outside of a "Veggie Tales" Sunday school video.
Although the story is hollow, the movie is artfully crafted to look and feel like a brisk 1950s biopic. It's shot in nostalgic black-and-white with old-fashioned Technicolor passages during Bettie's happiest moments. The story begins with a censorship bust at a Times Square adult bookstore and federal hearings into the smut trade at which one witness calls girlie pictures a greater threat to the nation than communism. Bettie, listening outside the room where she waits to testify, overhears the debate and reflects on her experiences.
Unfortunately, director Mary Harron, who tuned in to the cruel and fantastic world of our primal fantasies in the underrated "American Psycho," doesn't achieve a similar degree of insight here. There are interesting parallels between the hemmed-in culture of America's paranoid postwar years and the enforced restraint and caged sexuality of the fetish photos that flourished at the time, but they go unexplored. "The Notorious Bettie Page" is all undressed up with nowhere to go.
The Notorious Bettie Page
** out of four stars
The setup: A biographical drama about the 1950s pinup icon.
What works: Gretchen Mol nails Page's girl-next-door look and cheeky attitude.
What doesn't: The model remains an enigma. We see the surface but never her inner life.
Great line: A live-and-let-live fetish photographer shrugs, "It takes all types."
Rating: R for nudity, sexual content and some language.