It is weirdly annoying to watch a mediocre film about someone you admire. Not every biographical documentary has to be The Fog of War, yet there is a cloying quality to this subgenre precisely because there is so much affection for their subject. Like last year’s documentary about John Lewis, Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It is fawning to a fault. There is no denying that Moreno, a terrific actor and EGOT recipient, is a trailblazer and a significant force in depicting Latin Americans on screen and stage. Literally everyone who has a passing interest in her life already knows that. The trouble is that director Mariem Pérez Riera is so deferential that her film markedly refuses to dig deep, instead opting to laud her in an obsequious way.

There was a lot of pain in Moreno’s early career. After she was discovered in New York and moved to Hollywood, she was cast in multiple roles as a generic “ethnic” ingénue, only to find later success in West Side Story and The Electric Company. Moreno looks directly into the camera when she talks about her life: we are meant to feel like a confidante, except there is an uncanny feeling we only see the practiced “Rita Moreno” role. Riera supplies a number of talking heads to comment on the important episodes from her career. The more recognizable interviewees are Lin-Manuel Miranda, Gloria Estefan, Morgan Freeman and Whoopi Goldberg. All of them gush about Moreno, of course, but there are also mild discursions about representation and sexism in Hollywood. The whole thing is so very reassuring.

Even for someone who knows Moreno from “One Day at a Time” and West Side Story, there are snippets about her life that are surprising. Fans may not realize, for example, that she was romantically involved with Marlon Brando at the height of his career. But her reflections on this relationship are purely superficial, and she offers little insight beyond a joke or two. There is no insight, only the facsimile of it, because Riera is too deferential to her subject. Moreno does talk about painful episodes from her personal life, mainly through the prism of sexism in Hollywood, except it all sounds rehearsed. The cumulative effect is like a perfect dinner party companion: she is charming, and you understand why she is holding back a little. That relationship is fine for a pleasant social gathering, but documentaries should not be this timid.

Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It is unnecessarily broad. It defines EGOT, for example, as if anyone who watches this film is unfamiliar with it. There are flashes of insight, like when Moreno reveals she used the same accent for all the minority roles she played, except those moments are inconsistent and fleeting. What we have instead are flashbacks to the many, many awards Moreno has won over the years. They are sprinkled throughout the film, which is totally fine, except somehow Riera thought that was not enough. This documentary ends with another, utterly superfluous montage of Moreno receiving even more awards. She is a singular talent who deserves all the accolades she receives, but like a bad dinner party host, this film overserves its message when we are already full.

Yet another documentary where affection for the subject hopes to hide genuine shortcomings.
53 %
Fawning portrait
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