Originally published Jan. 26.
We are living in the age of the redemptionpic. It’s a more specific formula than your standard biopic — or bio miniseries, as the case may be. In such fare as “I, Tonya” and “The People vs. O.J. Simpson,” we have discovered the joy of revisiting a famously well-covered tale, this time with the empathy and the hindsight of modern times. It’s a wildly satisfying cocktail. Current actors impersonate famous people of yore for our pleasure. We get hits of nostalgia via the styling and references of a more innocent era. And we wallow in the smug satisfaction that we are much better people now; we are not, say, as ignorant of sexism or racism or economic disparity as those rubes from a past decade were. We might not come out forgiving O.J. Simpson, but we now appreciate the forces at play — and, man, do we feel for Marcia Clark.
Hulu’s new miniseries “Pam & Tommy,” telling the story of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee’s incendiary 1990s sex tape, fits nicely into that mold, and it is often a blast to watch for all of the above reasons. It also brings the added dimension of a wilder side of the story that has not been as thoroughly told — that of the guy who stole the tape and realized the potential of selling it on the nascent World Wide Web before celebrity sex tapes or internet porn became established profit centers.
“Pam & Tommy,” based on a fascinating 2014 Rolling Stone story by Amanda Chicago Lewis, ably walks the line between camp and serious re-examination in the hands of “I, Tonya” director Craig Gillespie and “The Founder” writer Robert D. Sigel. They join producers Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen, who bring the same humor they brought to projects from “Superbad” to “The Interview.” There is, after all, a bit with a talking, animatronic penis. Don’t worry, we’ll come back to that.
Rogen also stars, perfectly cast as the luckless contractor Rand Gauthier, who is driven to revenge after a renovation job for the newly married celebrity couple goes sour and leaves him in serious debt. The resulting conflict is a very ‘90s, porn-driven version of “Upstairs, Downstairs,” as Gauthier works to realize his so-crazy-it-just-might-work vision of celeb sex tapes for profit, while Anderson (Lily James) and Lee (Sebastian Stan) try to stop the tapes’ release through legal and other means. Everybody involved ends up making a bad mess even worse for themselves. Along the way, we get to know a number of colorful supporting characters, most memorably Nick Offerman as Uncle Miltie, the slippery porn impresario who helps Gauthier with his business plan (until he doesn’t); Andrew Dice Clay as Butchie, the ruthless loan shark with whom they get into trouble; and Taylor Schilling as Gauthier’s ex-wife and only real friend.
Gauthier’s story is riveting, but the whole thing would fall apart if James and Stan didn’t inhabit Pam and Tommy with as much charisma as the stars they’re playing and the empathy necessary to make us feel for people whose images have tended toward the cartoonish. Here we have a Playboy Playmate-turned-“Baywatch” actress whose destiny was cast in her bombshell looks, and a rock star known for equal parts partying and fighting (along with occasional drumming for Motley Crüe).
But James and Stan sell us on the more genuine moments between the two, like when she reveals she loves “The King and I” and he joins her in singing and dancing along to “Getting to Know You,” or when she rehearses a dramatic “Baywatch” monologue for him at home, only to find the producers have cut it the next day because they find her more compelling when she doesn’t speak. Stan perfectly embodies Lee’s manic appeal and his desperation to please Anderson.
James Franco, before Rogen cut ties with him over sexual misconduct allegations, was originally slated to direct the project and star as Lee, which would have been in line with his scenery-chewing roles in “The Disaster Artist” and “Spring Breakers.” But Stan disappears into the role in a way Franco likely wouldn’t have, and in a way that balances nicely with James. You believe in Pam and Tommy’s love and humanity, which is the key to the whole thing, and exactly what was lost in the judgmental and pearl-clutching coverage of the sex tape at the time.
All of this would be for naught if it weren’t for the spectacular work of the hair and makeup departments. Stan’s guy-linered, tattooed, usually-mostly-naked Lee is spot-on. But James’ transformation into Anderson is uncanny and downright shocking, given that James hews more toward Keira Knightley in her natural look. And, my God, extra accolades must go to the props and special effects folks: They made an onscreen conversation between Lee and his famously ample penis happen. It’s not the kind of thing you can judge on its “realism,” and it’s hardly “necessary.” Yet in a film where Lee’s endowment really is its own character, well, the point is made. And it is not something you’ll forget.
The script gets a little too winky at times, as when Gauthier is trying to explain the internet to disbelievers. How will they sell copies of this tape he has acquired via burglary? “A web site. It’s this thing on the computer.” How will people know to look for it? “They don’t have to know. That’s the beauty of the web.” But wait! It must cost a fortune to get something on this internet. “The world wide web is free.” This sort of thing happens more than once, all but jabbing the audience in the ribs: Look! The irony! Now we do know what the internet is! Some of the other plot points suffer a similarly broad fate, as when Lee and his ‘80s metal band attempt a comeback and play some new songs at a Tower Records, only to be glowered at by a gang of flannel-clad grunge fans . In one scene, a character introduces another to Starbucks. “It’s coffee from Seattle. It’s showing up everywhere.” Get it? It’s the ‘90s! People of the ‘90s don’t know about things we now know about 25 years later!
The series is at its best when it’s deftly toggling among genres. One minute it’s a caper film in which you’re desperately rooting for Gauthier to exact revenge on the unhinged, selfish rock star who has ruined him financially, bullied him and threatened him with an expensive gun. The next it’s an oddly sweet romantic comedy that also just happens to feature a talking penis. Most of all, it’s a redemption narrative for Anderson — who, the series makes clear, suffered far more as the female half of the world’s most infamous sex tape, and is inarguably a better person than Lee. We see her watch Jay Leno make a joke in his monologue about how safety-conscious she was, given that they were on a boat: “In it, she sports not one, but two, flotation devices.” Not long after, she finds herself in a classic ‘90s starlet bind, having to promote her forthcoming film “Barb Wire” on a late-night show that has objectified and mocked her. The world may be messier today than it was then — and naked celebrities on the internet may be a simple fact of modern life — but here’s to the fact that we’ve learned at least a few good lessons since then.