For a film to do justice to the life of America’s most famous atheist, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, it would need to be serious, salty, inspiring, rabble-rousing and not a little bit creepy. She was, after all, a victor in one of the most controversial Supreme Court Cases of the ’60s — ending compulsory Bible reading in public schools — as well as the founder of a movement of non-believers and, in the end, the victim of a most ignominious crime.
Taking the sobriquet Life magazine once applied to her, director and co-writer Tommy O’Haver (“Ella Enchanted”) has named his biopic “The Most Hated Woman in America,” and wisely cast hard-edged Oscar-winning actor Melissa Leo as the prickly O’Hair. But the fiery breadth of the woman’s life as a professional poke in religious America’s eye is missing from this narrow, ineffectual offering, which presents itself as a true-crime saga of her final days and a bad-mommy soap opera more than a portrait of a complicated individual. (The film premiered at SXSW prior to debuting on Netflix March 24.)
Signs of life interrupted in an empty Austin house open the movie, which begins in August 1995, when the 76-year-old Madalyn (Leo), her adult son Jon (Michael Chernus, “Orange Is the New Black”), and granddaughter Robin (Juno Temple) were all kidnapped and taken to a house in San Antonio. First shown with bags over their heads, Madalyn’s voice snarls out “Did Jerry Falwell put you up to this?” The reality, though, is that their chief abductor, David (Josh Lucas), is known to O’Hair, and his million-dollar ransom demand suggests knowledge of money the family has kept off the books of her non-profit American Atheists.
Meanwhile, a concerned young Atheists employee named Roy (Brandon Mychal Smith, “You’re the Worst”), stymied by a police department that believes the O’Hairs are just on an extended trip, contacts a San Antonio reporter (Adam Scott) to look into the family’s disappearance. The first clue that something’s fishy: Madalyn’s beloved dogs were left behind. But even her oldest son, Bill (Vincent Kartheiser), long estranged and a Christian convert, isn’t eager to help when contacted.
Interspersed with the twin stories of abduction and investigation are flashbacks, starting with Madalyn as a single, jobless thirty-something mother in 1950s Baltimore still living with her judgmental dad (Ryan Cutrona, “Mad Men”) and concerned mom (a kind-eyed Sally Kirkland, rescued briefly from obscurity). Raising Bill as a questioning non-conformist, and bristling at the God talk at home, Madalyn finds her activist self: protesting with civil rights groups and taking umbrage with, then suing over, enforced reciting of the Lord’s prayer at her son’s high school. The Supreme Court ruling makes her a political star and, after she starts American Atheists, a target for the offended. (Yes, she really did receive hate mail stained with feces, as depicted.)
O’Hair relished the chance both to insult the faithful personally or on television (Leo is inserted into Phil Donahue and Johnny Carson clips) and to sue, sue, sue to be heard. But O’Haver’s biopic style is the highlight-reel version, big on recreated TV spots and busy but brief scenes, with an emphasis on the cheeky over the introspective. Atheism as a counter-political religious freedom movement is rarely explored beyond a sound bite in O’Haver’s and Irene Turner’s scattershot screenplay.
What gets the most screen time is the melodrama of Madalyn’s suffocating, mistrustful treatment of Bill — whose hatred for his guilt-tripping mother grows with each swig of whiskey — and the poor management of her organization, since these threads more directly affect the kidnapping saga, the shallowest and least interesting part of the movie.
Taken on blunt terms, Leo is the right performer to play O’Hair; her barbed tongue and unkempt mien are engrossing enough, but a deep portrayal, it’s not. Kartheiser, back in “Mad Men”-era threads, has the occasionally effective moment as Bill sours to his mother’s psychodrama, but he’s mostly ill-served by the general weightlessness. The rest of the cast is wasted, from Temple’s blah mousiness to Scott marking time expositorily as the reporter.
In the final act, Lucas’ David becomes the movie’s prime antagonist, once his connection to O’Hair is revealed, but there’s little beyond generic menace in the character, and the movie limps to its gruesome conclusion without ever really justifying the emphasis on it. “The Most Hated Woman in America” is ultimately a simplistic approach to a fascinating figure, more Lifetime than a woman’s life and times.