IIt tells that What Happened, Brittany Murphy ?, a new documentary about the confusing deaths of the Clueless and Girl, Interrupted actors in December 2009, is posted by two overflowing palms. The two-part HBO Max series begins with the hectic call from her mother, Sharon Murphy, over a recreation of the EMS trip from Murphy’s house in the Hollywood Hills to Cedars Sinai Medical Center, where she died of a combination of pneumonia, severe anemia and more. prescription and over-the-counter medicine at the age of 32. It ends with a hammy montage of fan videos made by internet detectives — right to the camera, brightly lit, skeptical remakes that often act as makeup tutorials — spliced with scenes from Murphy’s films, as if her expressive face is in conversation with their fascination.
That dialogue is a trick; In the two hours between those moments, what happened, Brittany Murphy? takes on the role of amateur slut. Fighting through tabloid reports, medical documents and first-hand accounts of people orbiting her death, it is claimed to explain Murphy’s tragic, untimely death and, more headliningly, her abusive, constricting marriage to Simon Monjack, who died five months after her of pneumonia. .
There is certainly room for a movie or series to visit Murphy’s largely underrated career, her live-wire presence on screen and the pressure that made her a controlling marriage and after many reports paralyzed anxiety for her career and appearance. But this series, directed by Cynthia Hill, feels less like a monument to Murphy’s life than an exploitation of her death, the tropics and the pitfalls of real crime – a pain of someone else like a puzzle, hyperclinical details, unwarranted skepticism, speculation about speculation – metastasized for one of the funniest reconsiderations a star from the 90s / 00s. What went so wrong here?
There are glimpses of another, more considerate Murphy series-Hill managed to recruit some of Murphy’s childhood friends to attend, as well as co-stars like Taryn Manning and Amy Heckerling, the director of her breakout performance as a make-over ugly duckling in 1995’s Clueless. All testify to a bubbly, ambitious, preternaturally friendly and talented artist, as evidenced by old footage from her early theater days in New Jersey. Murphy, the only child of a single mother, dreamed of Hollywood’s success, tormented by fitting in and was an open emotion book amid countless pressures on how to be a star in the late ’90s.
Sometimes the series seems interested in reassessing or seriously considering the pressure that triggered Murphy’s professional struggles, aggravated her health conditions, and made her vulnerable to an emotionally abusive and controlling man. It touches on the intense focus on women’s bodies during the period when Murphy briefly rose to “it-girl” fame; the whole concept of a naughty, tiny, perennial “on” it girl in the first place; the relentless scrutiny of her body, her transformation from “ugly” (she was never) to hot; speculation about pills and plastic surgery (whose truth is next to the point); how Hollywood eased disturbed dining. This comes primarily from the testimony of Murphy’s King of the Hill -costar Kathy Najimy and longtime friend Kelley Faulkner, two of the few contestants who seem to be really invested in projecting Murphy’s legacy as an enthusiastic, versatile performer and lively colleague.
But Hill undermines his own half-hearted attempts at criticism by swinging into both pure slumber and the trap of confusing interest with significance. Like Britney vs. Spears, Erin Lee Carr’s documentary about the pop star’s conservatory that premiered on Netflix last month, What Happened, Brittany Murphy? also prioritizes the experience of people adjacent to her pain – how the timeline and attention was for the police officer, the lawyer, the PR representative, the Radar Online reporter who interviewed Monjack after her death. Hill contains several YouTube clips of fans speculating about the nature of Monjack and Sharon Murphy’s dubious tight relationships – a choice that may have been intended to demonstrate how Monjack overshadowed a thousand theories, but ends up perpetuating them.
More worryingly, the series seems to be targeting headlines on clickbait – “The Eight Biggest Bombs from the Brittany Murphy Documentary” etc. The two episodes indulge in a host of real crime thrillers – tasteless recreations of pill bottles tumbling on the nightstand, slowly movement pans over a cluttered bathroom, brutal score-in coverage of Murphy’s promising career, health issues and especially her marriage to Monjack, who appears to have been one of the least convincing scammers ever. There are some really creepy moments, such as a dramatization of the forensic pathologist dropping a sample of Murphy’s lung into water to confirm pneumonia during the autopsy (why not just say it was pneumonia? Why include a coroner at all?) Or a recreation in the bathroom where she died.
It’s almost impossible to watch this series and not think about the latest documentaries about Britney Spears – Netflix Britney vs Spears and two New York Times projects about FX on Hulu, all three of which contain troubling elements of obsession with its central focus. But even though these films ultimately relate to a questionable legal arrangement that is still ongoing, it continues to capture thousands of others, What Happened, Brittany Murphy? blind alleys to self-serving speculation. For the most part, the series appears to be incredibly misjudged – that because there is public interest in reassessing such besieged 90s / 00s figures like Spears, Monica Lewinksy, Tonya Harding, Lorena Bobbitt, Princess Diana and others, that any investigation of a beautiful tragedy will pass muster. This is no Amy, Asif Kapadia’s sensitive, grueling portrait of Amy Winehouse’s tortured life or Kevin Macdonald’s 2018 film at Whitney Houston or even the serious but not overwhelming descriptions of spousal abuse in Tina, Daniel Lindsay and TJ Martin’s 2021 documentary about Tina Turner .
As we have again seen with widespread coverage, in traditional media and on TikTok, about Gabby Petito’s disappearance, America’s fixation on the loss of a beautiful white woman is evergreen and evolving. What happened, Brittany Murphy? combines a newer phenomenon — online detectives — that fascinates Murphy’s death into wretched, self-serving ends — and wraps it in a former Dateline style. That Murphy, who barely has a complex personality here, still shines through in her short screen appearances, is a testament to her talent – one that deserves serious consideration then and now.
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