When any young, talented, vibrant person passes away, it’s human nature to wonder why. The 2009 death of Brittany Murphy naturally brought on a lot of questions. How could a 32-year-old, Jersey-born actress who filled the screen with so much life in movies such as Clueless, Just Married, and 8 Mile pass away with no ulterior motive? There has to be more to the story. What Happened, Brittany Murphy attempts to excavate all the possibilities and not leave any stone unturned. Beginning with the frantic 9-1-1 call by Brittany’s mother, Sharon, the documentary jumps around in time to look at the rise of Brittany’s stardom and how it all came apart when ex-husband Simon Monjack enters her life.

In its totality, the two parts are not as cohesive as they could be – leaping from how bright Murphy’s future was in action, the tabloid stories that were hurtful and intrusive, and the husband who had suffocating control of her. I came away not feeling absolution, resolution, or knowing more about Brittany than her later life struggles. Director Cynthia Hill tries to balance the three storylines that speak loudly throughout the documentary, but the result is that they weaken one another.

What Happened, Brittany Murphy contains a lot of commentaries from friends, business partners, directors, and former journalists who covered her career. It begins as many of these true crime-lite chronicles do – early home videos show that a young Brittany Murphy was ready for stardom. She was an infectious and genuine spirit who was friendly to those she worked with and had the entire world ahead of her. Her portrayal of Tai Fraiser in 1995’s Clueless complete with stories from director/writer Amy Heckerling is looked to be the top point that showed Hollywood has a star on its hands.

With speaking about Murphy’s ascent into stardom, there’s also the undercurrent of the tabloid media. A continued reckoning and reflection on how magazines like the National Inquirer covered celebrities in that 2000s period. Constant allusions to her weight and if she was taking drugs persisted and hurt her deeply. Whatever things she was battling with, the media certainly didn’t help. Perez Hilton is also interviewed about this against the cruel things he used to say – it appears as him trying to atone for his gossip-blog past – not so much in good faith.

Hill chooses to intercut a lot of footage from Murphy’s movies and various YouTube videos from fans who had conspiracies about her death and marriage. At times, the movie footage works to show how dedicated Murphy was to her craft and even late in her life, where something was off. Other times, clips from her films like Don’t Say A Word are utilized, almost like her speaking for herself, which is very jarring. The coroners and examiners are talking about her cause of death against various conspiracies theories of foul play. What Happened, Brittany Murphy spends a lot of time on these, and it’s unclear if the documentary wants to sow doubt in how she died. As if it’s trying to leave the door open for some possibility that experts haven’t explained.

As this documentary goes on (especially in the second part), it becomes more of Simon’s story. He is explained to be an all-time grifter, often coming around with flashy cars, an acute sense of self-importance that intoxicated the surrounding people – complete with unknown children around the globe. Not to mention, he stated he has various forms of cancer that were untrue. At that point, Murphy melts into the background. It’s a straightforward story of a predatory man who saw an opening for someone who was down and seized it – as explained by one mother of Monjack’s children. But at a point, you ask if this is enough to investigate Murphy’s death, or is it a way to examine the terrible motivations of her ex-husband?

For the bulk of this two-part documentary, there’s a concrete deliberation that there wasn’t a conspiratorial mystery why Brittany Murphy is no longer with us. It’s a mix of people in journalism and personal life who preyed on her insecurities to a horrifying degree. The documentary understands that the mystery draws people into this story because it’s hard to accept a simple explanation of tragedy. Unfortunately, we didn’t find out more about Brittany Murphy, the person, than we already knew before. Like the intro that showed various news clippings of Murphy’s past, that’s the meat of what we get.

Photo Credit: HBO Max