As bad as career opportunities got for late actress Brittany Murphy, at least she never had to make something like “The Brittany Murphy Story” — a bottom-feeding slice of tacky TV movie exploitation that transforms a true Hollywood tragedy into tedious trash. A misleading ad campaign stirred buzz that this Lifetime premiere might milk the mysterious circumstances of Murphy’s untimely passing for armchair murder mystery, but there’s nothing quite so salacious at work in the final product. Instead, the telepic’s more pedestrian offenses include embarrassing scripting, awkward performances and threadbare production values. Fortunately, unlike Murphy, it should be quickly forgotten.
One of Murphy’s last roles coincidentally was as the star of a relatively classier Lifetime pic, 2009’s Nora Roberts adaptation “Tribute.” Apparently, the story of her life doesn’t merit anything in the same league, as no expense or effort appears to have gone into this bargain-basement, cringe-inducing portrait of shattered Hollywood dreams. As biopics go, it makes Lifetime’s recent “Anna Nicole” look like “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”
The problems begin with an unfortunately cast Amanda Fuller (one of Tim Allen’s daughters on “Last Man Standing”) as Murphy. With no obvious physical resemblance, Fuller struggles mightily to pull off a credible imitation let alone channel any of Murphy’s unique charm or star quality. Admittedly, that would be an uphill battle for any actress, especially given the severe limitations of the production.
Peter Hunziker and Cynthia Riddle’s script speeds through the events of Murphy’s professional and personal life to chart a humdrum roller-coaster ride of highs (“Clueless,” “Don’t Say a Word,” dating Ashton Kutcher) and lows (getting fired after one day on low-budget thriller “The Caller,” being labeled the “Jordache Junky,” rushing into marriage with opportunist Simon Monjack).
Everything is filtered through Murphy’s tight-knit relationship with her mother, Sharon (Sherilyn Fenn). While hinting that their co-dependent connection wasn’t exactly beneficial to Murphy’s worklife, the filmmakers steer clear of outright judgment, and present Sharon as a largely supportive if often helpless cipher.
The aim isn’t to smear anyone’s reputation, but instead leave auds sympathizing with (and maybe shaking their heads over) Murphy’s struggles. Tabloid rumors of drug abuse, eating disorders and wild partying are dutifully treated as pure gossip. She gets super skinny to land her dream role as Janis Joplin (in a biopic that remains unrealized) and develops a dependence on painkillers, but never touches illegal drugs due to a heart condition and chronic anemia that frequently leave her weak and unsteady.
The pic similarly plays it safe when it comes to Monjack (Eric Petersen of “Kirstie”), portrayed as a controlling figure who desperately believes he can reboot Murphy’s career after major-studio offers dry up and she’s dropped by her reps. Monjack’s well-documented history of scamming friends and loved ones is acknowledged, and at one point, he admits he sees himself as a “sociopath,” but his genuine devotion to Murphy is never really questioned.
Whatever “The Brittany Murphy Story” gets right or wrong about Murphy’s life, there’s little feeling anyone involved knows anything more about the subject than what could be gleaned from red-carpet interviews and coverage of her death. In fact, much of Murphy’s rise and fall is chronicled through poorly re-staged red carpets, all of which seem to be have been shot on a single unconvincing set. It’s just one of many ways director Joe Menendez (whose ample kids TV credits include “Big Time Rush” and “Unfabulous”) does nothing to elevate the material.
Outside of a couple of laughable sequences on the set of “Clueless” (complete with atrocious stand-ins for Alicia Silverstone and Stacey Dash), there’s no attempt to recreate any of Murphy’s screen work. Her offscreen relationship with “Just Married” co-star and all-around good guy Kutcher (an OK Adam Hagenbuch, letting his trucker hats do most of the work) emerges as a major subplot, while two brief engagements to less-famous men go unmentioned.
“You’re either up or you’re down, there’s no in-between,” Fuller-as-Murphy notes early on, explicitly stating the film’s less-than-enlightening point of view on Hollywood. In that case, it’s hard to get much lower than “The Brittany Murphy Story.”