- Movie Rating -

What Happened, Brittany Murphy?

| December 2, 2021

I’ll admit it, I’m a little late to the door with this one.  What Happened, Brittany Murphy? came out in mid-October and I’m just now getting around to it, and that’s for good reason.  The outward reason being that when I saw the ads for this, I kind of already knew what I was in for.  After the trashy hack-strung apology docs about the life and times of Britney Spears, I kind of expected Brittany Murphy’s story to have been rendered into yet another trashy E!-style expose on a celebrity tragedy with all of the juicy and none of the real-life consequences.

And well . . . What Happened, Brittany Murphy? Is kind of all that but there were times when I was at a loss to figure out what exactly director Cynthia Hill was trying to do?  Does she want to track Murphy’s rise to stardom?  Does she want to celebrate a talent cut short?  Does she want to investigate the reasons for her tragic death?  Is she interested in the strange journey of her late husband Simon Monjack and his apparent strangle-hold on her life?

If the movie wants to mix together a full-flavored recipe of a celebrity death, it spices all of these questions into a mixture that can’t quite decide what it wants to be.  The documentary, which for some reason runs two one-hour episodes hangs onto its title question, circles around it but never quite lands at an answer. 

Murphy was a rising star, the star mostly known for Clueless, 8 Mile, a series of forgettable rom-coms and as the voice of Luanne Platter on “King of the Hill,” but as her star rose, her life got caught in the male-dominated Hollywood machine that is now currently crumbling.  Through interviews with co-workers, friends and family members, we see the prism of a young woman under the sex-angled gaze of executives whose judgements about her weight and her sex appeal (she was told “You’re un-fuckable”).  Though that point is boldly illustrated, it only draws a half-answer.  The movie opens with a 9-11 call from her mother on December 20, 2009 after Murphy collapsed and died from what was later attributed to pneumonia.  Hill uses a frequent on-screen clock to count the hours, days and weeks after her death while we wait for such a device to be the arrow to an answer.  It isn’t.  There is a lot of information about her death from black mold.  There’s a lot of information about her death from anemia and possibly anorexia that allowed Pneumonia to happen, but no one seems to arrive at a definitive answer. 

The movie swoops back and forth, in and out of her life from her rise as a child actor through her teen years and into adulthood.  She wasn’t a typical child actor.  She had a natural, bubbly personality that genuinely made you think that she wanted to be on screen.  She made those around her care deeply about her and there is a curiously quizzical quality to their interviews with co-stars Kathy Nijimy and Taren Manning and directors Amy Heckerling and Shawn Levy who all seem to have seen her as something special, as a young girl who liked herself, who liked acting and seemed free of the starlet qualities present in young woman her age.  She was up-front and open, they suppose, which makes the mystery of her life all the more frustrating.

Possibly because the interviews are conducted with co-workers and not those closest to her, the interviews feel a bit slighted and speculative.  There are questions of control, and of management and of isolation in the wake of her marriage to Simon Monjack that leave a lot of open-endedness.  After her relationship with Ashton Kutcher (who is not interviewed) she enters into her marriage to Monjack and seems to have lost contact with friends and family.  Much of the back-half of the film focuses squarely on his mysterious activities in the weeks and months following Brittany’s death, particularly his very weird relationship with her mother Sharon, especially some very strange and cryptic interviews with Larry King in which they duck and dodge crucial questions so effectively that even King gets frustrated.

Monjack is the tabloid element here.  He’s a shadowy figure made even more mysterious by his own death five months after Brittany.  He was a writer, a director, a producer and a photographer whose entrance into Brittany’s life is never really explained.  Nor is there ever really a first-hand account of their relationship before or after they got married.  Through the words of those who were in his orbit, he was a slick, controlling con artist, a man who knew how to slither in and out of just about anything just with the force of his personality.  But what got him into Murphy’s orbit?  What was he to her, or vice versa?  Those questions are frustratingly never answered.

That’s the downfall of this whole documentary.  There is a lot of upfront evidence but when one tries to put the pieces together nothing forms a cohesive whole.  There is a little of this and a little of that.  There’s the story of a girl manipulated by Hollywood’s crowned heads (mostly men) and there’s the cryptic information about her marriage to Monjack.  Then there’s her mysterious death from pneumonia which no one seems able to solve.  What Happened, Brittany Murphy? really never answers the question, or rather, it tends to answer questions with questions.  It’s a frustrating story maybe because Hill never seeks to answer them.  She wants a bold portrait of this young woman but doesn’t seem to land at any real answers.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2021) View IMDB Filed in: Documentary