It’s telling that What Occurred, Brittany Murphy?, a brand new docuseries on the Clueless and Woman, Interrupted actor’s confounding dying in December 2009, is bookended by two overwrought sleights of hand. The 2-part HBO Max sequence begins with the frantic 911 name by her mom, Sharon Murphy, over a recreation of the EMS journey from Murphy’s home in Hollywood Hills to Cedars Sinai medical heart, the place she died from a mixture of pneumonia, extreme anemia and several other prescription and over-the-counter drugs at age 32. It ends with a hammy montage of fan movies made by web detectives – straight-to-camera, brightly lit, skeptical recaps that always double as make-up tutorials – spliced with scenes from Murphy’s movies, as if her expressive face is in dialog with their fascination.
That dialogue is a ruse; for the 2 hours between these moments, What Occurred, Brittany Murphy? takes on the function of novice sleuth. Combing by tabloid stories, medical paperwork and first-hand accounts of individuals orbiting her dying, it purports to clarify Murphy’s tragic, premature demise and, extra pertinent to headlines, her abusive, constrictive marriage to Simon Monjack, who died 5 months after her of pneumonia.
There may be actually area for a movie or sequence to revisit Murphy’s largely undervalued profession, her live-wire presence on display, and the pressures which cornered her right into a controlling marriage and, by many accounts, paralyzing anxiousness over her profession and look. However this sequence, directed by Cynthia Hill, feels much less like a monument to Murphy’s life than an exploitation of her dying, the tropes and pitfalls of true crime obsession – one other’s ache as a puzzle, hyper-clinical element, unwarranted skepticism, hypothesis for hypothesis’s sake – metastasized into one of many queasiest reconsiderations a 90s/00s star. What went so fallacious right here?
There are glimpses of a unique, extra thoughtful Murphy sequence – Hill managed to recruit a few of Murphy’s childhood associates to take part, in addition to co-stars corresponding to Taryn Manning, and Amy Heckerling, the director of her breakout efficiency as a made-over ugly duckling in 1995’s Clueless. All attest to a bubbly, formidable, preternaturally sort and gifted performer, as evidenced by previous footage from her early theater days in New Jersey. The one little one of a single mom, Murphy dreamed of Hollywood success, agonized over becoming in and was an open e-book of emotion amid myriad pressures over how you can be a star within the late 90s.
At instances, the sequence does appear excited by re-evaluating or critically contemplating these pressures which precipitated Murphy’s skilled struggles, exacerbated her well being circumstances and made her weak to an emotionally abusive and controlling husband. It touches on the extreme give attention to ladies’s our bodies throughout the interval when Murphy briefly rose to “it-girl” fame; the entire idea of a cheeky, tiny, perennially “on” it lady within the first place; the relentless scrutiny over her physique, her transformation from “ugly” (she by no means was) to scorching; hypothesis over tablets and cosmetic surgery (the reality of which is inappropriate); how Hollywood facilitated disordered consuming. This comes primarily from the testimony of Murphy’s King of the Hill costar Kathy Najimy and longtime pal Kelley Faulkner, two of the few contributors who appear genuinely invested in projecting Murphy’s legacy as an enthusiastic, versatile performer and ebullient coworker.
However Hill undermines her personal half-hearted makes an attempt for critique by swerving into each pure schlock and the entice of mistaking curiosity for significance. Like Britney vs Spears, Erin Lee Carr’s documentary on the pop star’s conservatorship which premiered on Netflix final month, What Occurred, Brittany Murphy? additionally prioritizes the expertise of individuals adjoining to her ache – what the timeline and a focus was like for the police officer, the lawyer, the PR consultant, the Radar On-line reporter who interviewed Monjack after her dying. Hill consists of quite a few YouTube clips of followers speculating over the character of Monjack and Sharon Murphy’s questionably tight relationship – a selection that was maybe meant to exhibit how Monjack’s shadiness fostered a thousand theories, however finally ends up perpetuating them.
Extra troublingly, the sequence appears aimed for clickbait headlines – “The eight largest bombshells from the Brittany Murphy documentary,” and so on. The 2 episodes bask in a number of true crime tropes – tasteless recreations of tablet bottles tipped over on the bedside desk, gradual movement pans over a messy rest room, heavy-handed rating – in overlaying Murphy’s promising profession, well being points and particularly her marriage to Monjack, who seems to have been one of many least convincing con artists ever. There are some actually egregious moments, corresponding to a dramatization of the forensic pathologist dropping a pattern of Murphy’s lung in water to verify pneumonia throughout the post-mortem (why not simply say it was pneumonia? Why embody a coroner in any respect?), or a recreation of the lavatory the place she died.
It’s close to not possible to observe this sequence and never consider the latest documentaries on Britney Spears – Netflix’s Britney vs Spears and two New York Occasions initiatives on FX on Hulu, all three of which comprise uneasy parts of obsession with its central focus. However whereas these movies finally concern a doubtful authorized association that continues to be a piece in progress continues to entrap hundreds of others, What Occurred, Brittany Murphy? dead-ends into self-serving hypothesis. Largely, the sequence comes off as extremely misjudged – that as a result of there’s public curiosity in reappraising such beleaguered 90s/00s figures as Spears, Monica Lewinksy, Tonya Harding, Lorena Bobbitt, Princess Diana and others, that any examination of a lovely tragedy will cross muster. That is no Amy, Asif Kapadia’s delicate, gutting portrait of Amy Winehouse’s tortured life, or Kevin Macdonald’s 2018 movie on Whitney Houston, and even the intense however not overwhelming descriptions of spousal abuse in Tina, Daniel Lindsay and TJ Martin’s 2021 documentary on Tina Turner.
As we’ve seen as soon as once more with widespread protection, in conventional media and on TikTok, of Gabby Petito’s disappearance, America’s fixation with the lack of a lovely white lady is evergreen and evolving. What Occurred, Brittany Murphy? combines a more recent phenomenon – on-line detectives taking fascination with Murphy’s dying to queasy, self-serving ends – and packages it in an erstwhile Dateline model. That Murphy, barely afforded advanced personhood right here, nonetheless shines by in her transient display appearances, is a testomony to her expertise – one deserving then and now of great consideration.