You wouldn't think it was possible to make a bore out of Hugh Hefner's life story. But the USA network accomplishes just that with "Hefner: Unauthorized," a two-hour movie airing tomorrow night at 8.
With a word like "Unauthorized" in the title, you'd expect to see a little new dirt dished on the bunny magnate, if there's any left. But the movie treats its subject with kid gloves.
Indeed, the most damning moment comes halfway through the film when Hefner practically has a nervous breakdown over lumpy gravy at his Chicago mansion.
Randall Batinkoff, looking more like Jim Carrey than Hef, does a commendable job, portraying his subject as a geeky, overgrown fraternity brother. Curiously, though the bulk of the story runs from 1948 to 1975, the character doesn't seem to age until the final scene, set in 1998, in which he looks like one of the living dead.
The movie portrays young Hugh as a sheltered youth raised by a puritanical mother who warns her son: "Kissing spreads germs." Amusingly, in the opening scenes, the boy publishes his own newspaper featuring a "Neighbor of the Month" and makes bunny hand puppets for his bedroom wall. That's called foreshadowing.
Director Peter Werner makes effective use of black-and-white footage, split screen and grainy home-movie-type shots in the early going. The story jumps briskly from Hefner's start in the publishing industry to the point when Playboy becomes an overnight success with its publication of a nude photo of Marilyn Monroe. "When they took the picture, all she had on was the radio," Hefner's first wife, Millie (Sarah Trigger), observes.
The movie gets bogged down by the character of longtime Hefner assistant Bobbie Arnstein (Natasha Gregson Wagner), whose 1975 suicide opens the film--and who provides nonstop narration from beyond the grave throughout. "Some writer dubbed me 'the girl who died for Playboy,' " she says. "That's a laugh. For me, it was him. It was always him."
Arnstein revels too long in her own infatuation with Hefner, as well as her involvement with a drug dealer who almost brought her boss down. She's portrayed as a martyr who saved Hef by refusing to 'fess up to government prosecutors who tried to link him with the dealer, but she comes across as a whiner who can't hold her booze.
Bobbie also spews cringe-inducing observations, such as describing Hefner as "the man who loved women and was left by all of them" and remembering him as "the life of the party. The straw that stirred the drink." And how about: "Is he the luckiest man alive or the loneliest?"
The Hefner character is capable of some stomach-clenching dialogue as well. After a close encounter with the female colleague in charge of the magazine's circulation, he says, "You certainly know how to improve one's circulation."
Those looking for some provocative footage as seen in the pages of Playboy would be better served looking at some of the network's original programming, such as "Silk Stalkings" and "Pacific Blue," or any of its late-night movie fare.
USA decided not to push the envelope with nudity in this movie about the father of nudie magazines. In fact, the only envelope-pushing the network engages in is casting surfer dude Pauly Shore as Lenny Bruce, mingling at the Playboy mansion.