Christoph Waltz stars in and makes his directorial debut with “Georgetown”, a too-crazy-to-be-true crime drama that’s actually based on an true story. Well, sort of. The film is written by screenwriter David Auburn and is taken from a 2012 New York Times Magazine article by Franklin Foer titled “The Worst Marriage in Georgetown”. I haven’t read Foer’s piece so I’m ill-suited to parse fact from fiction. But clearly Waltz and Auburn have added their own spin to the story. Look no further than the film’s opening disclaimer: “This story does not, in any way, claim to be the truth. Nonetheless, it is inspired by actual events.”
“Georgetown” tells the story of Ulrich Mott (Waltz), a smooth-talking con-artist who wins the heart of a wealthy and much older Washington DC journalist and socialite Elsa Brecht (Vanessa Redgrave). Against the wishes of her daughter Amanda (Annette Benning) who’s wise to Ulrich’s game, Elsa marries her much younger suitor (In the real-life account they wed in 1990, when she was 70 and he was 26). After several years of marital ups and downs, 91-year-old Elsa is found dead in their Georgetown home. At first it looks like natural causes, but the DC police uncover enough to open up a homicide investigation and despite his firm denials, Ulrich quickly becomes their chief suspect.
The movie unfolds to a rather unconventional structure. The main story begins at a dinner party on the night of Elsa’s death and then follows Ulrich’s arrest and eventual trial. It’s broken up by chaptered flashbacks that flesh out the couple’s peculiar relationship. It starts with Ulrich’s time as a Congressman’s intern hitting it off with Elsa after sneaking into the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Later we see him as her butler, wooing her with breakfast in bed and driving her around town. Before long they’re married and he’s using her connections and resources to setup his own consulting firm, hobnobbing with senators, ambassadors, journalists, and White House officials to climb his way up the social ladder.
Things only get wackier from there as Waltz (both actor and director) chronicles the absurdity of his weirdly fascinating character. Whether Ulrich is masquerading as a Brigadier General for the Iraqi Special Forces (yep, you read that right) or driving his hapless defense attorney (Corey Hawkins) mad with his bewildering antics. In one sense Ulrich proves to be a sneaky charmer who could talk his way into relationships with rich and powerful people from all over the globe. Yet at times his smarmy unscrupulous facade leaves you wondering how Amanda is the only one who sees through him.
Speaking of Amanda, the tension between her and Ulrich is compelling and from the earliest scenes it’s pretty clear that she doesn’t trust him. But that conflict gets tossed aside and Amanda all but disappears for most of the second half. It’s a really good performance from Benning who could have used more screen time. And as you can probably guess, Waltz is well suited for his icky two-sided role. You can’t help but laugh as he strolls around his neighborhood in military duds that look official but are impossible to recognize. But then you get these brief burst of venom that show the character’s nasty core. The movie doesn’t always strike a good balance for him but he’s always fascinating.
“Georgetown” isn’t the easiest material to adapt yet Christoph Waltz manages a solid behind-the-camera debut. His movie gets a little bogged down after taking a strange geopolitical turn but in a weird movie like this it oddly fits. Solid performances from Waltz, Redgrave and Benning help sell this story that almost feels otherworldly. But its craziness is part of what makes it so compelling and it’s what keeps you glued to the screen even during its rocky patches. “Georgetown” is now streaming on VOD.