The Most Hated Woman in America review Melissa Leo lifts messy biopic

A gripping performance from the Oscar-winner isnt enough to save a tonally awkward take on the true story of a woman taking on religion in 50s America

The Most Hated Woman in America, a biopic of Madalyn Murray OHair, wins the award for inspiring my swiftest personal pivot from film-watching to Wikipedia-checking. The instant the closing credits hit I raced to my laptop with supersonic speed: wait, did this actually happen?

This is by no means evidence of a good movie. Debuting at the South By Southwest festival before its dump in Netflixs feature film graveyard, this collection of facts and unexpected cultural touch-points certainly has enough fascinating moments to hold ones interest. But its desultory storytelling and seesaw of tonal shifts is frustrating in a way that so many poor biographical films tend to be. Its a pity, as OHair is a heck of a historical figure and Melissa Leo is, in many scenes, quite gripping.

The spine of the film is set in the 1990s, when OHair, one of her sons (Michael Chernus) and granddaughter (Juno Temple) are violently kidnapped by one David Waters (Josh Lucas) and two accomplices he apparently picked up at a Coen Brothers casting call. Waters is known to the trio, but itll take some time to find out how, and itll also take time to realize what makes OHair so special, apart from being a pottymouth granny. Through flashbacks starting in the 1950s we watch as free-thinking OHair emerges as the unlikely individual to rid Americas public schools of organized prayer.

Her early years as a proud nonconformist are presented with humor and sympathy. She is an unwed mother (with another on the way, from a different absentee father) living with a classic reactionary father who seems not to understand the lessons in the Bible he loves to clutch. She humiliates the family by aiding a desegregation march, and finally puts her law degree to use when she realizes her son is subject to classroom evangelism.

Her success in the supreme court (and subsequent Look magazine profile with the films title) leads to the creation of an advocacy group (American Atheists) and television appearances. (She was on Johnny Carsons Tonight Show the same night as Steve Martin? I gotta Google that!) Her intent is pure, but theres no harm in making a buck, so she hits the lecture circuit opposite a holy-roller preacher (Peter Fonda). Next thing you know shes doing some creative accounting, and its this stashed dough that leads to the present-day storyline.

Director Tommy OHaver maintains a fast pace and an insider-ish, adroit attitude toward all social encounters. (Adam Scott is a newspaper reporter on the verge of a scoop, but his dummy editor-in-chief has no vision!) We may be seeing the first wave of film-makers aping the style of David O Russell, a sad state of affairs if one is of the opinion that Russell is a lesser Martin Scorsese cover band.

The problem here is that most of the movies playful snap is completely at odds with the vicious conclusion. Moreover, the scenes with the most resonance are the simple mother-son moments between Melissa Leo and her eldest, played by Vincent Kartheiser. It helps when you have two really strong performers like that. Unfortunately these no-fuss moments make it abundantly clear that the rest of the picture, for all its movement and soundalike music cues, has precious little to say other than isnt this woman wild? As slapdash as The Most Hated Woman in America is, it failed to make me a believer.

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