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Review: ‘Art Paul of Playboy: The Man Behind the Bunny’ overreaches in portrait of designer

Hugh Hefner, left, and Art Paul in a photograph from the documentary ‘Art Paul of Playboy: The Man Behind the Bunny’
Hugh Hefner, left, and Art Paul in a photograph from the documentary “Art Paul of Playboy: The Man Behind the Bunny.”
(Indie Rights)

No one believed men who said they bought Playboy for the articles. But Art Paul, the magazine’s founding and award-winning art director — creator of its iconic bunny logo and groundbreaking champion of editorial illustration as high art — certainly did his best to make the graphic design of Hugh Hefner’s game-changing monthly an equally worthy purchasing excuse for its “readers.”

Paul, who remained a Chicago fixture after leaving the magazine in 1982 and Hefner decamped to the West Coast, died two years ago at 93, and now there’s an affectionate if choppily assembled documentary about him, “Art Paul of Playboy,” with cliched subtitle — “The Man Behind the Bunny” — that seems unintentionally naughty. If only because Paul, the Bauhaus-inspired son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, wasn’t anything like his robed boss’ carefully branded image, preferring to be a design-obsessed workaholic pushing the idea of what illustration could do alongside copy, and hiring artists both local and internationally known (Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali) to achieve it.

When the focus is on how he made Playboy pop on the page — as backed by archival footage, interviews with Paul and those who worked for him, plus plenty of examples from the issues — director Jennifer Hou Kwong’s movie compels as a portrait of unwavering dedication to aesthetics and breakout creativity. It’s her efforts to sell Paul in home scenes as a coulda been musician, mighta been wordsmith and undiscovered solo artist that feel reaching, like a sentimental family tribute video.

'Art Paul of Playboy: The Man Behind the Bunny'
Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 14 minutes

Playing: Starts Feb. 28, Arena Cinelounge Sunset, Hollywood
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