THE REAL Frida Kahlo remains a truly fascinating artist, self-empowerment icon and feminist leading light, despite the attempts of "Frida" the movie to reduce her rich, tragic and courageous life into biopic banality.
Salma Hayek's title performance, which may be nominated for an Oscar simply on the basis of Kahlo's political significance, is robustly earnest. (She's also one of the movie's umpteen producers.) You can tell how much she wants to be authoritative.
But she remains as dedicated to her role and this movie as she is ordinary. She's a pint-size talent riding a legend, a mouse with one eyebrow atop a woolly mammoth. Director Julie Taymor's often-inspired touches -- stop motion, color tinting, black-and-white sequences and even skeletons -- suggest an intelligent desperation. She's doing her attention-getting best to save the movie from conventional doom. She should have turned her efforts to making something of this character and this story.
Even though Taymor gets up to several abstracting tricks, the movie is amazingly flat for a film about Kahlo, whose life included a gruesome 1925 accident in a bus, in which her body was literally broken and violated; a stormy marriage with artist Diego Rivera (played by the movie-stealing Alfred Molina); and a lonely life of physical, psychic and romantic pain.
Much of the convention comes from the hagiographic screenplay (credited to a number of people but not to actor Ed Norton, who applied the finishing touches), which renders everything into unaffecting episodes and a Frida highlights reel. Here's the part where Frida gets an excruciating injury in the streetcar -- a balletic, oh so self-consciously artistic sequence designed by Taymor. There's the time she first meets Rivera, warning him his wife's coming, just as he's about to ravish a naked model. Here's where her parents hand her an easel and palette and she starts painting. And here's where she shows her self-portrait to Rivera . . .
One of the worst things about Hollywood biopics is what I call Algonquin Table Syndrome. That's when our famous hero or heroine runs into other famous people in cameo bites. As in: Hey, isn't that Dorothy Parker? And glory be, if that isn't Gertrude Stein having a giggle with Hemingway!
In the case of "Frida," the Algonquian characters include Norton as Nelson Rockefeller! (who commissions Rivera to paint his most famous mural), Antonio Banderas as David Alfaro Siqueiros!, an artist and Rivera rival; Ashley Judd as Italian photographer Tina Modotti!; and -- wait for it -- Geoffrey Rush as Trotsky! You know, the great Russian revolutionist Leon Trotsky, who admittedly was a significant character in Kahlo's life. But in this movie, it's just another cameo, played by the actor who recently played the Marquis de Sade!
Ultimately, the movie's biggest crime is its inability to convey the delicate, damaged texture of Kahlo's life, but also the triumph of her will over intimidating defeat. In this movie, the greatest emotion we can summon isn't awe, wonder or tear-brimming empathy. It's plain old pity.
FRIDA (R, 118 minutes) -- Contains nudity, obscenity, violence and emotionally intense material. At the Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle and Landmark Theatres Bethesda Row.