Several intriguing elements surround this hyperventilating, over-stimulated profile of the 73-year-old chairman of the Playboy empire, Mr. Hugh Marston Hefner. The most surprising one is that Hefner himself has seen it and evidently enjoyed it, going so far as to promote the original, brazenly unofficial USA Network project in both print and broadcast interviews. Hef appears to be almost flattered by the biopic, which should perhaps come as little surprise given the massive ego of the septuagenarian whose four current girlfriends boast a combined age that barely exceeds his own.
One USA executive has another theory that explains why Hef is dispensing quotes about a film that portrays him as a driven, impulsive, insensitive, drug-addled, socially underdeveloped man-child. If they are going to make a movie about him — even one for which he had zero input –well then, by God, it had better get some healthy ratings. And there in a nutshell you have the man who popularized grown-up pajama parties, mainstreamed the sexual revolution and created the notion that buxom women should dress up like rabbits while serving cocktails.
Pic is told in flashback from the perspective of Bobbie Arnstein (played with beguiling intensity by Natasha Gregson Wagner). Arnstein narrates the story that primarily covers the years from Hefner’s repressive childhood, as the son of Methodist parents, through 1975, the year when Arnstein — Hef’s longtime personal assistant — committed suicide. “Hefner: Unauthorized” tries to lay her death at Hefner’s feet, with J.B. White’s cliche-riddled teleplay alleging that the man basically left Arnstein hanging out to dry after she was convicted on a cocaine possession charge and awaiting prison time.
Indeed, this is the only area of the film with which Hefner reportedly has a major quibble. He was known at the time to have supported Arnstein through her legal troubles, even insisting that she be allowed to continue living in the Playboy Mansion against the advice of his counsel. But it better fits the script’s depiction of Hef as a disloyal weasel to have him abandoning Arnstein in her hour of greatest need.
Film opens with Arnstein’s suicide, which deeply affected Hefner (played with a winning swagger by Randall Batinkoff, who looks like a cross between Hefner and Jim Carrey). Then we retreat back to the 1930s, when young Hugh (Jake Thomas) is forced to endure a mother and father who seemed almost Amish in their phobic aversion to anything resembling fun or physical contact (no kissing, no dancing, no smoking, no drinking, no card playing).
In one of the great ironies of our time, Hefner would not lose his virginity until the advanced age of 22 — a revelation worthy of Ripley’s. More amazing still, he would lose it with a woman he married. But by the time daughter Christie (Playboy’s future chief exec) was a toddler, Hef had tuned out his family to obsess over his dream of creating a sophisticated “stroke” magazine that celebrated the good life and engendered no shame.
As “Hefner: Unauthorized” illustrates, Hef launched Playboy in 1954 on a shoestring budget and was so concerned he’d have a flop on his hands that he put neither a date on its cover nor his name on the masthead. But it tapped a nerve immediately, and within a year the girl-next-door was clamoring to pose in its pages. Pic also shows the genesis of such Hefner-esque trademarks as his pipe (originally a prop for a 1959 TV special) and the Playboy Bunny (the cotton tail and abundant cleavage for his club employees was his idea).
For most of Playboy’s early years, Hefner is cast here as a Dexedrine junkie prone to 48-hour work marathons who lived for two things: his magazine and ravishing young women. His philosophy, so we’re told, is that he can love several women at once, monogamy be damned. But despite Batinkoff’s best efforts, the Hefner depicted in the film is almost cartoonishly one-dimensional — particularly later on, when he romanced a young lady named Barbi Benton (Rebecca Herbst).
The contrived dialogue rolls through White’s script with utter abandon, from such lines as “I’m not sure if he was the luckiest man in America — or the loneliest” and “Hugh M. Hefner, do you feel like pounding something other than those keys” to “The man who loved women … was left by all of them.” Most amusingly, the film indicates that even daughter Christie called him “Hef.” Now that’s funny.
But here is the piece de resistance. When comedy legend Lenny Bruce shows up at one of Hef’s bikini bashes in “Hefner: Unauthorized,” who should be portraying Bruce but … Pauly Shore. Seriously. This casting is perhaps our surest sign yet that the end of the world as we know it could well be at hand.
Direction by helmer Peter Werner is lively, if choppy. Tech credits are mostly solid.