It isn’t especially difficult to explain pop culture’s recent obsession with liars and con artists (see: “The Inventor,” the dueling Fyre Festival documentaries, and the forthcoming “Yesterday” among dozens of other examples), but Christoph Waltz’s “Georgetown” suggests that Washington D.C. was a magnet for megalomaniacal grifters long before Donald Trump reduced the property value of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Power has a funny way of attracting the most pathetic of people, and this half-formed, almost true dark comedy is nothing if not a story about the most pathetic of people. Alas, it stops a bit short of being anything else.
Based on Franklin Foer’s 2012 New York Times article “The Worst Marriage in Georgetown,” Waltz’s directorial debut — in which he credits himself as “C. Waltz” — opens with a winking title card that insists “this film does not claim to be the truth,” and spends the rest of its run time wobbling on a knife’s edge between different kinds of discomfort. Waltz himself plays Ulrich Mott, an overeager social climber whose pathological bullshit makes him feel like the Frank Abagnale Jr. of the beltway from the moment he first appears on screen.
The guests at the dinner parties that Ulrich co-hosts with his 91-year-old wife Elsa (a spirited Vanessa Redgrave) are convinced that he’s “a miracle worker” and “Lawrence of Arabia with a Blackberry,” but that’s only because these poor saps believe every word the smarmy man tells them about his friendships with senators, and his time as a brigadier general in the Iraqi Special Forces. It seems these political dignitaries have never seen “Inglourious Basterds,” “Big Eyes,” “Spectre,” or any of the other movies in which Waltz has played an imperceptibly slight variation on the same obsequious character that won the actor two Oscars and made his more sincere turns in “Downsizing” and “Alita: Battle Angel” feel so refreshing.
Or perhaps, like most people, they simply assume that a total lowlife could never have so many friends in high places. But when Elsa is found dead with blunt-force trauma to her skull, it doesn’t take long for the town to look at Ulrich in a different light.
From there, David Auburn’s spry and seemingly unfinished screenplay darts around in time, detailing how Ulrich lied his way into a White House Correspondents’ Dinner, met Elsa by chance, and then preyed upon the retired older journalist as soon as she was vulnerable. These flashbacks — told via the kind of unfussy compositions and intuitive editing that suggest Waltz could make a killing as a TV director — follow their unlikely marriage as its quid-pro-quo dynamic curdles into something more one-sided.
At first, Elsa is happy to trade her connections for Ulrich’s company. She helps him set up a nonsense NGO called the Eminent Persons Group, and knowingly encourages him to lie his way into the offices of George Soros and a former PM of France (Elsa seems to have abandoned whatever integrity she once had as a journalist). Alas, Ponzi schemes aren’t meant for sharing. Not that it’s ever the least bit clear how Ulrich intends to monetize his flimflammery. He just wants to belong and be taken seriously — what comes after that isn’t his concern.
Elsa’s Harvard professor daughter (Annete Bening) is the only person who instantly sees through the charade. It’s she who pushes “Georgetown” toward procedural territory, and she who then spends the rest of the movie sitting out of focus in the background of the inert courtroom scenes that follow. Eventually, it starts to feel as if the movie forgets about her altogether, which disappoints first-act expectations that this will be another barnstormer of a Bening performance. Redgrave gets a bit more to do, and seems determined to will the story into deeper waters — Elsa tries so hard to relate to her uninterested husband as a fellow immigrant eager to reinvent themselves in a community of provincial American politicians — but it never takes.
“Georgetown” is very much the Christoph Waltz show, and the movie’s best moments try to suss out any sincerity it can find in a lead character who couldn’t appear more selfish or suspicious if he cackled maniacally between every scene. Of course, as with so many of the sociopaths we’ve all come to know in recent years, there isn’t really any there there when it comes to Ulrich; it’s turtles all the way down with this guy, and he almost seems to believe his own bullshit more than anyone else. But then why is the movie so curiously disengaged with exploring the bizarre confluence of events by which Ulrich’s lies began to attract a patina of truth? How could this story, which spends the brunt of its time mapping out the strange middle ground where personal lies become political realities, disregard all the finer points of Foer’s reporting in favor of a cheap plot twist that’s telegraphed far in advance?
The way that the film resolves — or doesn’t — leaves the distinct impression that Waltz simply ran out of interest in this story, which would be an explanation as understandable as it is frustrating. All that really leaves us with is further evidence of a social phenomenon that we can’t seem to get rid of and a concentrated dose of a character type that Waltz finally seemed ready to outgrow. Ulrich is insufferably familiar, and yet he leaves us with the sense that all of the unique elements of his tale have been swept under the rug. “Forget it,” Waltz’s debut concludes. “It’s Georgetown.”
“Georgetown” debuted at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.