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HBO Max's What Happened, Brittany Murphy? is cinematic clickbait designed to generate journalistic clickbait

  • "What Happened, Brittany Murphy? uses the visual language of schlock television — the gauzy reenactments, jittery editing and heightened score — to produce … two hours of schlock television, more Hard Copy or Inside Edition than an interrogation of the aesthetics and ideology that let those outlets thrive," says Daniel Fienberg. "Split into two hourlong segments as a reflection of its lack of cohesion more than anything else, the doc is maybe 20 percent a reminder of Murphy’s transcendent talent, 30 percent a dead-ended investigation into the mystery of her death, and 50 percent an unenlightening examination of Murphy’s late husband, Simon Monjack, the least distinctive con artist ever born. It’s cinematic clickbait designed to generate journalistic clickbait — '10 Shocking Revelations From New Brittany Murphy Documentary!' — rather than anything compassionate or journalistic. The most frustrating thing about this documentary — and you may have gathered that I found many things about this documentary frustrating — is that it unquestionably generates the requisite sadness about what we lost when Murphy died. The exact same sadness, of course, could be generated by five minutes of YouTube clips."


    • What Happened, Brittany Murphy? settles for the bleakest and dullest of Hollywood cliché, ending in a place that degrades Murphy’s memory while pretending to honor it: "Murphy is not allowed, here, to exist as a gifted artist with a story worth remembering: We must literally discuss the shape of her organs on camera to verify that she died in a way that’s pleasing to the narrative," says Daniel D'Addario. "When watching a Netflix feature doc about Murphy’s contemporary, Britney Spears, last month, I wondered to myself what it would take to make the hacky, careless exegeses stop, to convince everyone that we’ve had enough mythologizing. What, indeed, would it take for us to allow the perpetual subject some space for her artistic legacy to be considered on its own terms, to say nothing of finally taking into account her privacy or her human dignity? The answer to that question, HBO Max’s unworthy documentary makes clear, is nothing, not even death."
    • What Happened, Brittany Murphy? can't answer its own question: The HBO Max docuseries "arrives during a recent trend of documentaries aimed at reconciling (and apologizing) for the way young women were used and abused in Hollywood," says Kristen Lopez. "Just in the last two months, we’ve seen Britney Spears become the focus of several stories on this apology tour, with social media rallying behind other ladies like Megan Fox. But it’s unclear what director Cynthia Hill’s aim actually is: Is it to deconstruct Murphy’s celebrity? To honor a performer whose body of work was marginalized because most were frothy rom-coms? Or is it an attempt to look at the 'true' reason she died? The answer, told over two nearly hour-long episodes, is all and none, which leads to an overarching question that continues to linger over these stories: Are these women still being used as grist for our collective consumption? But because there’s this question of 'what happened,' the documentary sets up a quest it can’t accomplish, as well as one it barely seeks to try."
    • The documentary adds insult to injury by including toxic celebrity blogger Perez Hilton: "The doc makes a clear case of Hilton posting terribly cruel posts about Murphy throughout her career, implying she was a pill popper and crazy, just like he did with Brittany Spears at the time," says Tara Bennett. "Yet here he gets to sit down and talk about how wrong he was, all in service of his ongoing public image rehabilitation tour. Who decided that it was a good call to give an admitted abuser a seat at the table in a doc about the very women who suffered from the callousness of his behavior? It’s beyond tasteless, especially when there are other pundits like Ted Casablanca, who speak to the nasty celebrity blogging culture of the time. The producers also make several unsavory and sensationalized editorial choices, like taking footage from Murphy’s performance as the disturbed character of Elisabeth Burrows in Don’t Say a Word and intercutting her whispering, 'I’ll never tell' into a cliffhanger reveal about Monjack’s hidden past. It’s jarring and entirely distasteful to use out of context footage to 'cleverly' connect her career to her dire real life. And it only gets worse in the second episode, where those kinds of insertions appear more frequently and unnecessarily."
    • Director Cynthia Hill undermines her own half-hearted attempts for critique by swerving into both pure schlock: "Like Britney vs Spears, Erin Lee Carr’s documentary on the pop star’s conservatorship which premiered on Netflix last month, What Happened, Brittany Murphy? prioritizes the experience of people adjacent to her pain – what the timeline and attention was like for the police officer, the lawyer, the PR representative, the Radar Online reporter who interviewed Monjack after her death," says Adrian Horton. "Hill includes numerous YouTube clips of fans speculating over the nature of Monjack and Sharon Murphy’s questionably tight relationship – a choice that was perhaps intended to demonstrate how Monjack’s shadiness fostered a thousand theories, but ends up perpetuating them. More troublingly, the series seems aimed for clickbait headlines – 'The eight biggest bombshells from the Brittany Murphy documentary,' etc. The two episodes indulge in a host of true crime tropes – tasteless recreations of pill bottles tipped over on the bedside table, slow motion pans over a messy bathroom, heavy-handed score – in covering Murphy’s promising career, health issues and especially her marriage to Monjack, who appears to have been one of the least convincing con artists ever. There are some truly egregious moments, such as a dramatization of the forensic pathologist dropping a sample of Murphy’s lung in water to confirm pneumonia during the autopsy (why not just say it was pneumonia? Why include a coroner at all?), or a recreation of the bathroom where she died."
    • There isn’t a lot that’s new here, and what passes for insight comes largely from the tabloid press who haunted her while she was alive: "The first part, in particular, feels undeveloped, jumping back and forth between the days immediately following Murphy’s death and her rise in Hollywood," says Lisa Weidenfeld. "All the interviews are slowly revealed as back benchers in Murphy’s life: It’s predominantly a parade of hangers-on in the Hollywood ecosystem who opine about Murphy’s life without much firsthand knowledge of it, and a couple of directors who weigh in to say she was a lovely if troubled person. The second part fares better, delving into some of the unpleasant realities of her life, including her drug use and the specifics of Monjack’s controlling behavior. In fact, the interviews go into overdrive to make a case that something unsavory was going on with Monjack, that he was a crook and a known liar who took over Murphy’s life and ruined it. But it’s hard not to come away from it thinking that in the entirety of the documentary, there are only two interviews from people who knew Murphy in her Hollywood years and aren’t trying to craft a narrative about her."

    TOPICS: What Happened, Brittany Murphy?, HBO Max, Brittany Murphy, Documentaries