Lifetime’s unauthorized Britney Spears biopic presents itself as a fairy tale come true, right down to the title. But Britney Ever After ends up playing just as innocent as its subject once did—Leslie Libman’s film is more interested in rehashing years-old innuendo and gossip than in exploring whatever factors might have contributed to Spears’ breakdown or the desperate need for love it posits she’s struggled with. All of this could be set aside to enjoy a two-hour bit of entertainment that’s at least aware of its own trashiness, but Britney Ever After insists it has more noble intentions.
The film frequently nods to an actual Spears documentary, 2008’s Britney: For The Record, for a little credibility boost (it’s also worth noting that Lifetime aired another Spears doc, I Am Britney Jean, immediately after). That and a Google search seems to be the extent of the research. A biopic doesn’t have to be deferential of its subject, but this particular one doesn’t even seem all that knowledgeable. The film should either introduce something new or at least retell familiar events in a compelling way to be worthwhile, but Britney Ever After does neither.
Starring Natasha Bassett as Spears, the film follows the ellipsis-loving pop star from her breakout year in 1998 to her quickie marriage in 2004, then back to her infamous breakup with Justin Timberlake, leaving no seedy stone unturned. ’Member how TMZ filmed her public breakdown in 2007? Well, Britney Ever After’s got that shit show amid its lowlight reel. There’s also her marriage to Kevin Federline, losing custody of her two sons, her possible substance abuse issues, and the sex tape she purportedly made with Timberlake in the early 2000s. These are all real-life events (except for the rumored sex tape), and are absolutely fair game for dramatization here.
But even though those are all memorable events, Britney Ever After forgets what made Spears famous and therefore ”worthy” of its biopic treatment—her music. When they don’t directly tie into some drama, Spears’ career and ambitions are glossed over here. Worse, the movie features absolutely none of her songs. You don’t have to be a Britney fan to notice they’re missing, because some of the funniest moments come from Bassett dutifully naming a song for the documentary-within-the-film, and then saying she’d rather not talk about it because she’s already done so ad nauseam. When she glances away from the camera, you half expect to see a stern-faced lawyer waving a cease and desist letter at the camera crew.
It’s not uncommon for music biopic productions to encounter trouble in obtaining the rights to their subjects’ work. But these are Jackie Jormp-Jomp levels of improvising and otherwise ignoring the elephant in the room. It’s a shame, and not just because it wastes Bassett’s impression of Spears’ “baby with a head cold” vocal stylings, which she totally nails. But it also mirrors celebrity magazines’ behavior at the time; after a while, they were only interested in capturing her latest low. And because there’s no inner or outward critique here, what we have is just a tabloid come to life.
Unfortunately, Britney Ever After doesn’t embrace its madness either. Aside from the musical restrictions, the film is free to play with Spears’ story as much as it wants. The singer didn’t authorize or otherwise participate in its production, and Anne-Marie Hess wasn’t exactly working from any authorized biographies of the singer for her script. (Maybe that’s the excuse for botching Spears and Timberlake’s famous coordinated denim getups.) There’s even an unintentionally hilarious disclaimer at the end that notes the film features “fictionalized composites,” and some events that have been “compressed, reorganized, or fictionalized for purposes of dramatization.” And yet, Britney Ever After sticks to a familiar narrative—little (eventually rich) girl lost.
That’s perfectly in keeping with Spears’ brand, a virginal image cultivated by Larry Rudolph (Peter Benson), her longtime manager. It’s what propelled her to the top and contributed to her downfall, after she purportedly cheated on Timberlake with their choreographer. An inferred desperate need for love makes the small-screen Spears do all kinds of questionable things, including marrying her childhood friend and allowing a Svengali-like character (Benjamin Arce as Sam Lutfi) into her life. And that’s what makes Britney Ever After a Lifetime movie, which isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. But even the women in the network’s typical fare show far more agency than Spears does here.
The movie kicks off with Spears poised for stardom, the better to show her supposedly having sex for the first time with Timberlake (on a tour bus, with her assistant sleeping nearby—scandalous!), and then sneak around with him every chance she gets. But that expediency does more than sacrifice an origin story viewers are probably already familiar with; it strips Spears of her motivations (aside from her marriage-driven ones) and a personality. Bassett’s performance doesn’t help; the Australian actress, who was recently seen in Hail, Caesar!, affects the heaviest Southern accent, which is nothing like Spears’ own lilting drawl. She also wears the same baffled look for most of the movie, whether she’s falling in love or answering tough questions posed by the documentary makers.
In real life, Spears was far savvier than the movie makes her out to be; she played along with the good-girl marketing, but was ready to sex it up to move past the teenybopper stage of her career. In Britney Ever After, she’s easily influenced and manipulated, making her career seem almost accidental. Spears had some well-documented troubles with overbearing parents, asshole boyfriends/husbands, and whatever the hell Lutfi was to her. She overcame all of that, and is in the midst of another comeback, but Libman’s film treats her as little more than a pawn or castaway. There is a halfhearted attempt at a redemption arc, with Spears’ Piece Of Me-powered comeback slapped on to the ass end of the film, presumably to help viewers forget all the suffering Spears endured in the preceding two hours. Indeed, by the time the “…Baby One More Time” singer describes her life as a multi-car pileup, you’ll wonder why it took so long for someone to invoke that phrase.