First "J. Edgar" and now this.
Clearly, these are hardly the best of times for what I like to call "Biography Channel Cinema."
Not to be confused with fact-based movies focusing on real people with compelling stories (Julia Roberts as "Erin Brockovich," say, or Daniel Day-Lewis as "My Left Foot's" Christy Brown), "Biography Channel" movies qualify as automatic Oscar bait for actors who bring well-known personalities to life in often uncanny fashion.
Think of Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II In "The Queen." Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland." Sean Penn as Harvey "Milk." Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman "Capote." Jamie Foxx's "Ray" -- as in Ray Charles.
Not coincidentally, all of those portrayals won Oscars. And sometimes, if we're lucky, the movies live up to the performances.
That wasn't quite the case with Meryl Streep's Oscar-nominated Julia Child in "Julie and Julia."
And it's even less the case in "The Iron Lady."
Despite Streep's predictably persuasive portrayal of British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, "The Iron Lady" strands its formidable -- and controversial -- title character in a marshmallow-(st)icky morass that might very well leave those who don't know Margaret Thatcher from "Tom Sawyer's" Becky Thatcher wondering why Thatcher even deserves a biopic in the first place.
Not that I expected much more.
After all, anyone who's seen Streep's first collaboration with director Phyllida Lloyd -- the ABBA jukebox musical "Mamma Mia!" -- knows what to expect. Namely, a grasp of filmmaking that's tenuous at best (in her case, a relative term) and nonexistent at worst.
But at least "Mamma Mia!" had a consistently fizzy, busy tone.
By contrast, "The Iron Lady" -- which focuses on a character who never seemed to doubt herself, or her convictions -- manages to waffle and waver at every turn, as if it's trying to figure out exactly what it's trying to do.
Sorry, if you haven't determined that by the time the cameras roll, you never will.
As "The Iron Lady" makes abundantly clear, Lloyd hasn't a clue how to approach the tale of Margaret Thatcher, whose rise from her father's small-town grocery to No. 10 Downing Street -- with stops in Oxford and Parliament in between -- inspired millions. Even if her steely politics, and personality, didn't always do the same.
Oh, we get scenes of worshipful women kneeling at the great lady's feet -- literally -- to tell her what an inspiration she's been.
Yet we see precious little of Thatcher in her prime-minister prime, illustrating what's behind that inspirational presence.
Instead, we first meet Baroness Thatcher in her dementia-addled dotage, with Streep buried under cakey, fakey old-age makeup. (At least it's better -- marginally -- than the waxworks Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover becomes in "J. Edgar.")
Thatcher's husband, Denis (the endlessly impish Jim Broadbent), may be gone, but he's with her still and always, providing comforting reminders of their life together as she struggles to deal with post-power realities.
Daughter Carol ("Hot Fuzz's" nicely harried Olivia Colman ) turns up to help, and secretaries are there to sort out her schedule, but Maggie's the type who still likes to dodder down to the local grocery and complain about the price of milk.
Once a grocer's daughter, always a grocer's daughter.
This grocer's daughter, however, has a chance to escape from behind the cash register when she's accepted to Oxford University.
Flash back to young Margaret Roberts (the quietly vigorous Alexandra Roach), challenging the Conservative Party's smug old-boy network -- and catching the eye of young businessman Denis Thatcher ("Game of Thrones' " Harry Lloyd).
Denis loves Margaret's determination to do more than washing teacups and wiping kiddie tears.
But as Thatcher marches off to Parliament -- and away from her family -- "The Iron Lady" marches into ever-shallower territory, following its title character into a whirl of march-of-time montages that chart her progress to the top.
Alas, director Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan (who also scripted "Shame," which is scheduled to open here next week) fail to find a workable focus for all those time passages, losing their grasp of their central character in the process.
In this case, going for the big picture turns out to be a big mistake.
The best recent examples of Biography Channel Cinema -- "The Queen," "The King's Speech" (with Colin Firth's Oscar-winning portrayal of Britain's King George VI) and even "Frost/Nixon," dominated by Frank Langella's re-creation of his Tony-winning turn as a disgraced Richard Nixon -- shrink the playing field, zooming in on their central characters at pivotal moments.
That approach not only eliminates choppy time-tripping, it enables a movie (and its audience) to explore the central character in depth rather than skim the surface with a reelin'-in-the-years cavalcade.
Which is exactly what "The Iron Lady" attempts as it zips past Thatcher's three terms in office (1979-1990), which encompassed everything from labor strife to the Falklands War. (It's a bit eerie to hear her speechifying on such still-with-us topics as terrorism and the economic implications of the European Union.)
Not surprisingly, Streep pushes all the right buttons, capturing Thatcher's trademark speech patterns and crisp, no-nonsense demeanor.
But not even an actress as resourceful as Streep can bring more than fleeting moments of poignancy, let alone insight, to such a sketchy portrait.
It's one that's likely to please neither Thatcher's ardent admirers nor her vehement critics. To say nothing of those in the audience hoping to see a glimmer of personal and psychological insight amid all the Biography Channel-style impersonation.
Contact movie critic Carol Cling at email@example.com or 702-383-0272.