Michael Almereyda‘s Experimenter is somewhere between decent and diverting. It’s about famed psychologist Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) and particularly the Milgram experiment of 1961, which proved that most Americans were willing to subject others to pain and torture as long as they didn’t have to bear the responsibility. Milgram’s peers criticized him for the obedience studies, mainly because they didn’t like the idea that most Americans were willing to behave like Nazis concentration camp guards.

What Experimenter lacks in emotion and story tension it occasionally makes up for in other ways.

The film more or less follows Milgram from the ’61 experiment and through his various trials and uncertainties until his heart-attack death in ’84. (The poor guy was only 51.) At times it’s like like watching an experimental play at the Cherry Lane Theatre. I enjoyed the fourth-wall destruction when Sarsgaard addresses the audience, and especially in two such scenes when he’s being followed by an elephant (probably CG, possibly not). I also enjoyed other reality-altering devices, such as the use of black-and-white backdrops instead of sets.

The trouble starts when Sarsgaard grows an almost comically fake-looking beard at the halfway point — the worst beard I’ve seen on any actor since Ronald Maxwell‘s Gettysburg (’93). It’s almost as bad when Dennis Haysbert shows up as Ossie Davis in a gray George Washington-like powdered wig. 

Winona Ryder is properly invested and grounded as Milgram’s wife Sasha, but I couldn’t help notice how Ryder, who’s only 44, looks older than her years — stressed, wiry, bird-like. I know I sound like a sexist in saying this, but that whole creamy, sexy, bowl-of-vanilla-ice-cream thing she had 20 years ago is out the window. Hey, I’m not as attractive as I was 20 years ago either. Which is why I believe in occasional “touch-ups.”

Excellent supporting performances by Taryn Manning, Anton Yelchin, John Leguizamo, Lori Singer and Anthony Edwards.