'Experimenter’ (written and directed by Michael Almereyda) tells the story of Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) the social psychologist who became famous or infamous, if you will, for a series of experiments he conducted in 1961 testing the boundaries of human obedience. His results dismayed the public and cause us to question our moral fiber as humans. Will we stand up to evil or will we ignore our own judgement in favor of group think?

 Milgram’s experiments were fascinating and controversial. Which is why it’s so disappointing to be presented with this lumpy-pudding of a movie, where all these well-meaning artistic elements are thrown in but but no effort is made to integrate them. Like the giant elephant that appears twice behind Milgram as he breaks the 4th wall—is it to show the elephant in the room of social convention?—is it to show a descent into madness? We don’t know! Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a little effort on the part of the audience. It can be engaging to struggle with the material but meet me half way! There’s a line between trying to understand and just making excuses for the director and this movie definitely passed into the latter.

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The unfolding of Milgram’s relationship with his wife (Winona Ryder) turned out to be another let down. It was central yet underdeveloped part of the movie. I thought the progression of their relationship and the stagnation of his career would intersect somewhere for a climax but the two moved as parallel lines. No climax. No nothing. Ryder acts as a wide-eyed support but doesn’t get the chance to give a memorable performance. It seems like a waste of a great actress and you’ll find yourself wondering if PBS has a documentary you could watch instead (at least then you’ll feel smarter).

A silver lining to this confused cloud are the cameos by Taryn Manning, Anthony Edwards, and John Leguizamo as subjects of Milgram’s experiment. All three deliver brief yet powerful performances describing acutely the inner struggle between conscious and authority. Jim Gaffigan’s cameo is another bright spot and his supporting role provides some much needed levity and makes me hope to see him on the big screen more!

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 Do not be fooled by the previews! The Experimenter, is not an artistic portrayal of a tortured mind who destroys his marriage and career through an obsessive dedication to his work. It is a story about a man with a really disturbing beard who enjoys a fair amount of success and has one fight with his wife.

Images via: magpictures.com

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