There’s an intriguing true story trying to break out of Christoph Waltz’s curiously flat directorial debut. It’s a timely one too, the story of a pathologically deceitful con artist whose deviously constructed web of bullshit sits him comfortably alongside both Elizabeth Holmes and John Meehan, whose schemes have turned them into recent podcast and small-screen sensations, as well as the staggeringly fabricated narrative provided on a daily basis by the American president. We’re compelled not just by garden variety liars but by the audacity of wildly creative and potentially delusional fantasists, an extreme form of dishonesty that most of us find impossible to identify with.
In Georgetown, Waltz is also present in front of the camera as Ulrich Mott, a mysterious German who has slithered his way from a job as a tour guide in DC to the husband of esteemed journalist Elsa Brecht (Vanessa Redgrave), a woman 30 years his senior. Their marriage raises eyebrows in polite society but also raises the suspicion of Elsa’s daughter Amanda (Annette Bening) who is convinced that Ulrich is after her money. After a disastrous dinner party, Elsa is found dead and Ulrich becomes the prime suspect.
From the opening few frames through to a clunky introductory sequence, there’s something frustratingly off-balance about Georgetown. Based on a New York Times article yet tweaked and massaged for dramatic effect, there are undeniably fascinating ingredients here but Waltz, credited as film-maker C Waltz, can’t seem to figure out the recipe, his ungainly film desperately missing a much-needed rhythm. Scenes feel like rehearsals, lines read like early drafts, the score is intrusive and staging seems awkward, the end result a clear example of someone biting off far more than they can chew.
In Hollywood, Waltz has struggled outside of his Oscar-winning work with Quentin Tarantino. He’s mostly been slumming it as increasingly hammy villains in films like The Three Musketeers, The Green Hornet, The Legend of Tarzan and Spectre or he’s fumbled with overblown comedy in Big Eyes and Downsizing. On paper, it’s a relief to see him playing a character with more substance and on a far smaller scale but it’s not quite the slam-dunk it should have been, given his clear passion for the character and the project. His performance isn’t as cartoonish as we’ve come to expect from him but he never truly convinces us that he’s charming and quick-witted enough to create such an elaborate web of deceit. His lies and his shady behaviour are so thunderingly well-telegraphed that it’s hard to believe he’d even get in the door. In reality, the character who Mott is based on was a teenager when he met his older soon-to-be-wife and there’s something a tad vain about Waltz taking on the role instead, his underwhelming turn never really justifying to us why this leap was made.
Redgrave fares slightly better, her considerable experience helping to lift the film around her whenever she’s on screen but Bening is left stranded, tonally unsure and stiffly interacting with others as if she was a last-minute replacement. The script, from acclaimed playwright David Auburn, never crackles in the way that it should given the underlying tension of the scenario and too often, exposition and odd, this-isn’t-how-people-talk dialogue prove distracting. It goes back to rhythm and Waltz’s inability to give his film any real propulsion. There’s a certain low-level interest given the specifics of the story and our collective obsession with true crime narratives but it’s never enough to divert our attention away from Waltz’s amateurish direction. The film looks cheap and feels bland, tied together with crude chapter titles like The Truth, roughly assembled by someone who doesn’t seem sure enough of himself to convince in his recently adopted new career.
There are a great many fantasies concocted in Georgetown but perhaps the most egregious is that this was the right way to tell such a beguiling story.