Pam & Tommy first-look review: Pamela Anderson biopic is an uneasy mix of comedy, drama and period piece

The pre-publicity focused on James’s transformation into Pamela Anderson, yet she hardly features in the opening

Ed Cumming
Wednesday 02 February 2022 16:05
Pam & Tommy trailer

What does Pam & Tommy (Disney Plus) want to be? Despite their notoriety, Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee are not obvious subjects for an eight-episode bells-and-whistles biopic series. Their union was short and unhappy. The Baywatch actress and Motley Crue drummer were married in Cancun in 1995, four days after they met. They had two sons, but divorced in 1998, when Lee was sentenced to six months in jail for assaulting her. In the public imagination, they are forever associated with the sex tape, made on their honeymoon and leaked by Rand Gauthier, a disgruntled contractor working on their house, who stole the tape and sold it. Not exactly a laugh a minute.

It makes an interesting companion piece to the BBC’s A Very British Scandal, which used a miserable marriage with a notorious sex act at its heart to tell a wider story about class and gender relations in Britain after the war. In the opening scenes of Pam & Tommy, we see Anderson (Lily James) on the Jay Leno talk show. He asks her about the tape, with a kind of knowing locker-room leer. Is this a period piece about the final moment before everyone and their uncle recorded all their activities, clothed or otherwise, and broadcast them 24/7 on the internet? Or perhaps it is going to be a Nineties morality tale, in which Anderson is a kind of proto-Britney, objectified and exploited by every man she encounters.

It may develop into something like that. But for all Pam & Tommy’s wry evocation of the mid-Nineties, complete with a gratifying soundtrack – I noted Belinda Carlisle, Munk, Nine Inch Nails and Primal Scream – on the evidence of the first episode it sits a bit uneasily. Its pretensions to commentary on the Nineties are undermined by a curious mix of comedy, drama and period piece. The pre-publicity focused on Lily James’s transformation into Anderson, with the help of hair, makeup and – to the inexpert eye – possibly occult prosthetics. As it would, I suppose. You don’t make a biopic about Pam & Tommy if you’re not going to use her picture on the poster. James has reportedly said she sees this as an opportunity to show the world her versatility, and apparently remained in accent between takes.

Yet she hardly features in the opening. A glimpse now and then. We hear her a fair bit more, especially in the opening minutes, although the hotly tipped accent doesn’t get much of a look in. She and Lee (Sebastian Stan) rut away unseen upstairs, grunting and cursing, to the distraction of the workers trying to finish their house.

Chief among these contractors is Gauthier (Seth Rogen), here a carpenter rather than an electrician, as he was in real life. Rogen is almost as unfamiliar in appearance as James, clean shaven with a curly mullet and blue jeans, but he brings all his usual hangdog sympathy to the part. The script, by Robert Siegel, who wrote the films The Wrestler and The Founder, portrays Gauthier as an honest, hardworking American, down-on-his-luck, indebted and alleviating the gloom of his life with smoke and masturbation. Tommy represents everything he isn’t: rich, dishonest, obnoxious, and with the era’s ultimate trophy, Pamela Anderson, by his side. Stan and James are not an unglamorous pairing. Stan, clad in nothing but tattoo ink and a succession of posing pouches, hams it up to 11, as fits the role, with the odd flash of real darkness.

Yet while Pam & Tommy sometimes plays it seriously, most of the time it is content to stick to the laughs. An overlong heist scene, in which Gauthier contrives to steal Lee’s safe as “karma” for unpaid wages, might have come out of another Rogen film altogether. Pineapple Express, perhaps. This isn’t really Pam & Tommy – it’s Rand. He might be a more relatable figure, but nobody ever went to Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee for relatability.

‘Pam & Tommy’ is out on Disney Plus on 2 February

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