The enjoyably wacky scenario of Errol Morris’s “Tabloid” is cookie cutter material for the documentarian, but Morris wields his personalized cookie cutter like a pro. Doing penance for the grim, sterile polemics of “Standard Operating Procedure,” Morris bounces back with the sort of phenomenally surreal weird-but-true tale expected of him. The result is not a major work, but still a wildly funny portrait that succeeds at inducing the incredulity Morris always seeks out.
As usual, his subjects speak directly at the camera, which he trains on the exploits of Joyce McKinney. A seriously batty former beauty queen, McKinney allegedly kidnapped her Mormon husband in the 1977 after he abruptly fled the marriage and returned to the church. Tying him down with either chains or ropes (reports vary), then either raping or seducing him (same deal), McKinney’s mad scheme turned her into a trashy media darling. The movie’s primary talking head, McKinney looks back on her plight with the insane conviction that she did nothing wrong. Her innocuous southern mannerisms mask untold levels of madness, the essential ingredient that makes “Tabloid” into unabashedly sensationalistic entertainment.
Like the lovers’ quarrel that resulted in the acid-in-the-face incident of Dan Klores’s “Crazy Love,” the kidnapping in “Tabloid” provides merely a starting point for exploring McKinney’s obsessive nature. Reporters that covered her behavior reveled in her ability to relish a position in the limelight during the legal proceedings that followed her first infraction. Many more followed, including allegations of her involvement in prostitution (but no actual sex; she claimed her inability to rescue her husband from Mormanism rendered her chaste).
Morris portrays the media interest (his own included) in McKinney in much the same light as her allowance of it. He routinely speaks up from behind the camera, sounding flabbergasted at every new twist. Attempts to distinguish between her sunny rationalizations of her behavior and the reality of it eventually give way to an intentional blurry line. When a gossip columnist describes his dedication to tracking McKiney, Morris declares, “You became her tool,” and the interviewee agrees without hesitation.
Morris, however, turns Joyce into a tool of his own by goading her into upping her on-camera provocations. Discussing the kidnapping case, he asks her whether she believes a woman can rape a man. On cue, she fires back, “That’s like squeezing a marshmallow into a parking meter.” Despite the comic edge, “Tabloid” does offer clues scattered throughout McKinney’s mania. Speaking of her ex-husband’s rejection, she says, “You can tell a lie long enough until you believe it,” and you have to study her face to determine if she’s talking about herself.
Alternately bonkers and perceptive, McKinney lets Morris freely exploit her story. Newspaper headlines flash across the screen; a typically enigmatic score amusingly overstates the drama. The trajectory is hard to second-guess, which results in a fragmented experience that leaves the point of it all a little too open-ended. Morris veers away from the details of her earlier adventures and focuses on her recent news-making development, when she paid top-dollar to get a Korean scientist to clone her dead dog. The big picture never becomes clear, but the fun factor stays put.
The later scenes of “Tabloid” climb to a whole new level of conceptual strangeness. McKinney, not any single one of her outlandish acts, serves as the movie’s sole purpose. Just as she dismisses her “thirty-two-year-old sex-in-chains story,” the director makes the case for returning to its mastermind. Her presence is vintage Morris — great for what it is, even if it’s impossible to shake the feeling that we’ve been on this trip before.