With Georgetown, Christoph Waltz joins the steady stream of actors making their transition behind the camera to make their highly anticipated directorial debuts. And indeed, the two-time Oscar winner seems like the perfect candidate to make that leap: a character actor with a keen eye for a riveting script and larger-than-life characters. But unfortunately, despite the talent that he frontloads into his debut film and despite the sordid real-life story upon which it’s based, Georgetown is a snooze.
Based on a real-life couple that was memorialized in The New York Times’ attention-grabbing article “The Worst Marriage in Georgetown,” the scandal at the center of Georgetown seems better suited for the D.C. gossip magazines or whispered furtively among the city’s elites at black tie parties. But in Georgetown, the story is given the same dramatic weight as a film about the president of the United States. And as electrifying as Waltz is to watch onscreen, his Ulrich Mott is no Richard Nixon.
Georgetown centers on the aforementioned Ulrich Mott (Waltz) and his older wife Elsa Brecht (Vanessa Redgrave), a renowned and respected journalist more than 40 years his senior. The pair’s unique relationship is seen as an amusing oddity by the dozens of important diplomats, politicians, and journalists who are frequent guests of Ulrich and Elsa’s famous dinners, which are full of the most elaborate dishes prepared and served wholly by Ulrich alone. Ulrich waits on his guests like a glorified butler, and treats his wife much the same way, anticipating her needs like a caregiver rather than a husband. But after one of their successful dinners wraps up, the frayed edges to their seemingly loving relationship begin to show — picked apart by Elsa’s hostile daughter Amanda (Annette Benning) — culminating in Elsa being found dead by Ulrich a few hours later.
Waltz employs a nonlinear structure to tell the story of how Ulrich and Elsa met, leading up to their unusual courtship and surprising marriage. He flashes back and forth to the aftermath of the discovery of Elsa’s body, which at first is treated as the natural death of a 90-year-old woman. But when trauma on the head suggests a murder, Ulrich is detained by the police and the film launches into his version of the story, marked by increasingly tall tales.
Divided into several chapters (complete with eye-catching intertitles like “The Intern,” “The Butler,” “The Diplomat,” etc.), Ulrich’s life grows increasingly confusing. Straight off the bat, Ulrich is shown lying to Elsa about being a Hill staffer when he was a low-level congressional intern, until his lies grow so fantastical that it’s hard to distinguish between what is real and what is fake. But Elsa is immediately charmed by this ambitious man, even partaking in his high-stakes Ponzi scheme that Ulrich sells to diplomats and politicians as a prestigious NGO. Together they become an odd power couple, until a dramatic fallout that ultimately leads to Elsa’s death.
Waltz is impressive as always as Ulrich — constantly shifty and secretive. But Ulrich’s charm that supposedly wins over Elsa’s affections and so many of the D.C. elite is oddly missing from Waltz’s performance, so distant and cold it is. It’s hard to fathom Ulrich’s motivations: does he want political power? Or does he simply want to scam those with political power? The movie never deigns to answer that, despite the way that Waltz builds a certain mythology and aura around his character.
Redgrave is also magnificent as Elsa, who defies any of the classic characterizations of a feeble old woman. Strong-willed, angry, but endlessly capable of love, Elsa is both victim and partner-in-crime to Waltz’s Ulrich. When he proposes to her after her husband’s death, she defiantly accepts in the face of her family’s objections and other age-appropriate suitors. “They are old and boring. Mott is young and interesting,” she says, echoing a line the real-life Viola Drath reportedly said about Ulrich’s real-life inspiration, Albrecht Muth. Bening is fantastic too in the few thankless scenes she gets as Elsa’s aforementioned disapproving family, spending most of the film scowling at Ulrich.
It’s a vaguely interesting premise that the audience slowly loses interest in as Waltz takes a painstaking amount of time establishing who Ulrich is. While certainly well directed, the Waltz’s direction feels deliberately opaque on whether the film thinks Ulrich is a genius or a fraud. The problem is that Waltz seems convinced that Ulrich Mott is the most interesting man alive, when the entire film is about debunking that persona as a lie he concocted to weasel into the inner circle of Washington D.C.’s elite. Waltz ultimately does not end up succeeding in convincing the audience to find Ulrich Mott as interesting as he does.
/Film Rating: 5 out of 10
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