The Most Hated Woman in America (2017)
Dir.: Tommy O'Haver
Streaming giant Netflix has decided to put forth massive effort in 2017 to release their own original films alongside their successful original television productions, which is something we've seen them do this before with original films like Cary Fukunaga's stellar Beasts of No Nation. I was thus pretty optimistic about some of the previews that Netflix had released of their upcoming projects. Well, I watched The Most Hated Woman in America, one such film bearing a "Netflix Original" stamp, and I feel like I need to reassess my expectations for the brand. A disappointing film that never communicates a compelling narrative, has an annoying score, and has one good performance that can’t carry all the other clichéd and barbarically simplistic caricatures on display, The Most Hated Woman in America shows Netflix stepping out of the gate and tripping over a rock, tumbling into the dirt, and eating a great chunk of mud for its trouble.
This film tells the story of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the notorious atheist activist whose most noteworthy historical achievement was to get Christian prayer banned in public schools across the United States. While this jumpstarts her activist career, she does not rest on her laurels, and she ends up founding the group American Atheists, a nonprofit group that works to bring awareness to the necessary, constitutional separation of church and state. As she drags her family with her along the way, she must contend with how much the world seems to despise her, as she consistently receives death threats and is put in mortal danger. Unfortunately, though this sounds like a compelling case for a biopic, the film makes a fatal mistake in never providing the audience with any reason to care for O’Hair or her well-being.
The Most Hated Woman in America’s greatest tragedy is that it pretends to be a necessary biopic without ever proving itself to be one. Despite Melissa Leo’s performance, it feels more like a made-for-TV movie, where the screenwriter simply picked and chose some bits of her story on Wikipedia and put these bits onto screen. This film never truly feels like it is justified in existing. Tons of superior biopics at least provide a coherent theme (and a semblance of character motivations) to explain the context behind their actions. Here, the film just presents Madalyn Murray O'Hair and all her pent up aggressive angst and sandpaper-laden animosity without providing any shred of positive sympathetic narrative to back up her antics. The film skirts around the possibility of her having a family as being enough of a motivator to get the audience behind her, but this simply is not enough; even her family realizes how over-the-top and dangerously antagonistic she is toward everyone around her who does not kiss her feet.
From the cinematography to the score, the technical prowess on display is nothing to write home about. The score features tongue-in-cheek soundtrack choices, and it attempts to be cheeky like Wolf of Wall Street or War Dogs were, but without any of the satirical edge that the screenwriting and direction displayed in both of those films. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, this film feels like a half-cocked impression from someone who watched thirty minutes of Lord of War and figured they could roll with a black comedy-style edge based on soundtrack choice and a charismatic lead performance alone. Sadly, neither of these two elements can carry the film through its pacing issues, misguided supporting performances, and other miscellaneous misfires.
Melissa Leo works with a barebones script and attempts to unearth some life out of the character of O’Hair, but neither the brutal historical facts nor the poorly relayed fiction can imbue any kind of redeeming quality in the protagonist. Simultaneously, O’Hair is never truly a dark enough character for the audience to support her as a masochistic villain kind of role, as the film never truly condemns O’Hair for her personal issues, nor does it present her political activism in any kind of positive or negative light. Instead, it straddles the rails and gets hit by both runaway trains.
I hated The Most Hated Woman in America. It’s the worst kind of talent squandering for a fantastic, Oscar-winning lead actress, and a definitive blow to the once flawless reputation of Netflix Original programming. Between this film and the show Iron Fist, these days remind this critic not to buy into blind hype based on brand-name alone. There’s not much to like about this biopic, as it’s a poor excuse for one in a year where much better biopics have come out…and in January, no less! There are much better choices on the streaming platform to partake in, and unfortunately, this film is not worthy of your time or your patience.