It's been a while since we saw a truly boggling sophomore slump, one of those infamous second-act follies, like Steven Soderbergh's Kafka, made by a director blinded with ego and overreach. Steven Shainberg, who made the winsomely rascally Secretary, has now followed it with Fur, subtitled ''An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus.'' Working in a style that's like David Lynch meets A&E Biography, Shainberg ''imagines'' the three months of Arbus' life in 1959 just before she became an artist.
Since Arbus was dark, compact, intense, and Jewish, she is portrayed of course by Nicole Kidman, acting in a mode of blurred-out sodden distress. A pampered, stifled Manhattan housewife, Arbus, attuned to the sights and sounds that no one else registers, meets the reclusive Lionel (Robert Downey Jr.), who has a disorder that causes his face and body to be covered with hair. He looks like a member of the Addams Family, and the film envisions their ''grand romance'' as a lachrymose, inert Phantom/Elephant Man/Beast cliché. Embodied by Downey with a sweetness that never makes him interesting, Lionel introduces Arbus to his freak friends many, many freaks. But this is the film's real violation. Diane Arbus took her walks on the wild side, but her true subject was the freakishness of the ordinary people made grotesque from the inside out, frozen and isolated in the godless modern world. Shainberg reduces this most disturbing of all photographers to a portraitist of Halloween.