The Most Hated Woman in America ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Tommy O'Haver.
Written by: Tommy O'Haver & Irene Turner.
Starring: Melissa Leo (Madalyn Murray O'Hair), Josh Lucas (David Waters), Adam Scott (Jack Ferguson), Juno Temple (Robin), Vincent Kartheiser (Bill, Jr), Rory Cochrane (Gary Karr), Michael Chernus (Garth), Brandon Mychal Smith (Roy Collier), Alex Frost (Danny Fry). Peter Fonda (Reverend Harrington), Sally Kirkland (Lena), Anna Camp (Mrs. Lutz).
In his comedy special Thinky Pain, Marc Maron says he doesn’t call himself an atheist, because he doesn’t want to be associated with all those assholes. That’s certainly how I feel as well – I call myself agnostic, even though I probably do lean more towards the outright atheist side of things – but I find the militant atheists to be as bad, and in some cases worse, than hard liners of any religion. No one was more of a hardliner in her time than Madalyn Murray O’Hair – who filed the lawsuit that eventually led to prayer in public schools being banned (people are still pissed about that one) – and eventually founded the organization American Atheists, which fought all sorts of atheists causes. This was in the 1960s-1990s – and yes, there was a time when she was a celebrity, and was hated, far and wide in America – and she didn’t care. Then, she went missing – and no one seemed to care about that. Her story seems custom made for a biopic – and Melissa Leo is well cast as Madalyn – but Tommy O’Haver The Most Hated Woman in America is pretty much as dull as biopics come. It hits every note you expect it to, in pretty much the dullest way imaginable – favoring a surface level exploration of her career as an atheist, intercut with the weeks she spent being held captive – alongside her son and granddaughter – by a trio of hapless kidnappers. The story is so insane, you would think it would be impossible to make it boring. You’d be wrong.
Hollywood doesn’t seem to know what to do with Melissa Leo – who has been a fine character actress for years, but not even winning an Oscar for The Fighter (2010) seemed to really jumpstart her career, and give her better roles. She’s an actress over 50, not named Meryl, so the bigger budgeted movies slide her in for a few scenes in action films, and she has to go to Indies to do something interesting – and she usually is. She is in fine form in The Most Hated Woman in America – from the opening scenes as a woman in the 1950s, who already has one son and no husband, when she gets knocked up again – much to the chagrin of her conservative parents. She finds her purpose when she discovers her teenage son is being forced to say a “Morning Devotion” at his public school – and files a lawsuit. While most hate her for her stance – and her fiery personality – some don’t. And those people donate money – and so Madalyn figures out a way to make money, by making herself a pain in the ass to religious people. Not all of that money is, uh, properly accounted for. That is why a trio of kidnappers – led by David Waters (Josh Lucas) kidnap the now 77 year old Madalyn – alongside her son Garth (Michael Chernus) and granddaughter Red (Juno Temple). They want part of the money, and figure because Madalyn is hiding it from the IRS, she won’t report them. Of course, as with every kidnapping scheme in movie history, this one doesn’t work the way things were planned.
The problem with The Most Hated Woman in America is that co-writer/director Tommy O’Haver doesn’t seem to have a point of view – doesn’t seem to have any real opinion or insight on who any of these people were. What he settles on instead is a dry recitation of facts – first Madalyn did this, and then she did this, and then she did this, etc. What makes her tick, what drives her, doesn’t seem to be something he has considered – and he doesn’t seem to have considered it for anyone else either. This is a film with a talented ensemble cast – and yet O’Haver doesn’t really give them much to do. Leo is a pleasure to watch to be sure – but that just makes you wish the movie surrounding her was better. This is one of the most boring movies imaginable about kidnapping, murder and religion in America. This material is so rich, so ready for someone to make a movie about it – which very well could be relevant in Trump’s America, where everyone and everything is for sale. It’s too bad this is the movie we got out of it though.