Nicole Kidman missed her calling as a great silent film actress. In "Fur" she plays the famous photographer Diane Arbus, by turns convincingly stoic, contemplative, embarrassed, indignant, inquisitive and mystified. She does it all with the face and eyes, and a limited amount of dialogue unusual for any contemporary movie let alone one with such a big star.
Her performance is reminiscent of the one she gave in "Birth," and at first "Fur" is just as promising. Diane, a future famous photographer, is in a larval state as an over-talented assistant in her husband's commercial photography studio. "Fur" captures her feelings of alienation in the images. During a showing of her father's latest line of fur coats, even simple crudités seem grotesque when stuffed in the faces of rich patrons ogling pelts. Diane, forcing herself into a pretentious role, falls apart later as she tries to describe herself to an inquisitive reporter.
One feels this tension between the cheery normality of '50s American upper-class culture and Diane's longing for the fringe. Unfortunately, the cure for Diane's melancholy takes the form of an elaborate metaphor a neighboring apartment where she meets Lionel (Robert Downey Jr.), who has enough hair to play a Wookie without makeup.
Metaphors and symbols are shaky devices in a medium as visually powerful as the movies, especially in the wrong hands. This may be why the makers of "Fur" felt they needed not only a subtitle for their picture ("An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus"), but also a preamble to explain it. As we're told before the start of the picture, "Fur" is not to be taken literally. But then we are bombarded with literal manifestations of Diane's inner turmoil. Her creative impulse is embodied by Downey's hirsute freak who Diane must confront, bare herself to, get to know, fall in love with and make passionate love with in visits that grow ever more corny. "Fur" becomes too glib to withstand. Just as Diane is spellbound by her inner freak, the movie gets so caught up in its own freaky allegory, it doesn't realize it looks foolish. (R)