Mapplethorpe is the first narrative feature film by Dig! director Ondi Timoner, and it often splits the difference between a documentary and a standard biopic. The picture follows controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (Matt Smith) from his days as a scruffy 23-year-old Pratt Institute drop-out in 1969 who can’t afford to get into the Whitney Museum of Modern Art, to his death from AIDS at 43 not long after an exhibition of his work at that very same museum.
The full-adult-life arc is increasingly unfashionable in biopics, with reason: Many elements in Mapplethorpe feel glossed over, particularly Robert’s lifelong friendship with Patti Smith (Marianne Rendón). She disappears from Robert’s life in 1971 in Mapplethorpe, because it isn’t about Robert’s relationship with a straight woman — not even one as awesome as Patti, whose great memoir Just Kids is about their lifelong friendship. Mapplethorpe is about how Robert found and expressed himself as a gay man through his photography, and the film’s raison d’etre proves to be cutting to the real life-results of the many fictionalized photo sessions. To its credit, Mapplethorpe doesn’t shy away from his now-problematic attitudes — particularly regarding Black men — but also doesn’t linger on that or anything else for too long. And if the life and work of Robert Mapplethorpe does anything, it lingers.
Not rated. Opens Friday at the Opera Plaza Cinema.