A militant defender of the 1st Amendment, Madalyn Murray O’Hair founded the American Atheists organization in 1963 after using her young son William as an opportunity to sue the Baltimore City Public School System, an effort that eventually reached the Supreme Court and effectively led to the end of mandatory Bible prayers in the nation’s education system. William, who now goes by the name Bill Murray, would grow up to become a Baptist minister — today, he serves as the chairman of the Religious Freedom Coalition, his life devoted to reversing the kind of secular progressivism that thrust his mother into the national spotlight.
Pulled taut between the disparate forces of fame and freedom, this is a uniquely American story that’s rich with relevant detail, tantalizingly sordid even before you get to the part where Madalyn is kidnapped from her Austin home in 1995, abducted alongside her underachieving son and Bill’s estranged daughter. In other words, it’s hard to believe that “The Most Hated Woman” is the first movie that’s been made about the Murray family’s remarkable lives or their outsized impact on our sociopolitical landscape. By that same token, however, it’s even harder to believe that the first such movie could be this spectacularly inert and uninteresting — seldom has a biopic done so little with so much.
There may not be a more garbled way of telling this tale. Dicing Madalyn’s life into a non-linear history that skips between genres as clumsily as it does points in time, the film begins on the morning of August 27, 1995, minutes after its namesake has been stolen from her own house. We first meet Madalyn in the seedy motel room, a hood draped over her head. A fire-spitting 76-year-old played by a characteristically cartoonish Melissa Leo, she can identify her kidnapper sight unseen. His name is David Waters (Josh Lucas), he used to work for her at American Atheists, and he’s brought along two bumbling goons to help extort his severance pay.
Before you can sink into the sub-Coen brothers vibe that develops between these characters (“Did Jerry Falwell put you up to this!?”), however, the movie whisks us away to San Antonio and shifts into “Spotlight” mode, where an intrepid reporter played by Adam Scott is already on the case. But it’s tough to get much traction on a missing persons story when the victim is… wait for it… The Most Hated Woman in America.
Why is she the The Most Hated Woman in America? Cut to: Baltimore, 1955, where Madalyn rebels against her conservative parents and brands herself as a non-conformist. Cut to: Almost 10 years later, when she busts into little Billy’s classroom during the daily devotional and screams “What the hell is going on here?” A revolutionary is born.
The film skitters across the belly of the 20th century so fast that it’s to suss out just how deeply Madalyn cares about all of this, and while it’s tempting to give writer-director Tommy O’Haver (and co-writer Irene Turner) credit for embracing their heroine’s complexities and denying the ironic temptation to make her into a martyr, their approach mistakes ambivalence for ambiguity. The real Madalyn was so devoted to the cause that she tried to defect to the Soviet Union, where atheists weren’t treated like outcasts, but here it seems more like she just gets a kick out of trolling America’s traditionalists. When someone sends her some dog shit in the mail, she just laughs (“The Most Hated Woman in America” might be the highest compliment she ever received). There’s nothing wrong with bending the facts in order to find some truth, but the movie never figures out what it’s looking for.
That aimlessness only becomes more frustrating as the film rolls on, as it becomes increasingly obvious that none of these scenes from Madalyn’s past are doing enough to support the story of her present (although “scenes” might be the wrong word to describe the structure of a movie that never settles down for more than 30 seconds at a time). We’re told that Madalyn’s kids resent their mother’s notoriety, just as we’re told that she has a brutal history with men, but approximately none of this is dramatized in a way that might bring it back to life. “Mad Men” alum Vincent Kartheiser plays Bill as an adult, but even he is prevented from having a coherent character arc, or from sharing more than a few seconds of screen time with Leo.
Indeed, every member of O’Haver’s star-studded cast is wasted at the expense of a breakneck biography that can’t decide if it would rather focus on Madalyn’s television interviews with Johnny Carson and Phil Donahue or on her tumultuous life off-camera, but rushes through it’s subjects life at such a rate that it certainly doesn’t have the patience for both.
“The Most Hated Woman in America” makes it abundantly clear that Madalyn Murray O’Hair was a riveting human being whose story is worth telling in our messed up times, but the film never has the slightest idea of what that story might be about.