Georgetown isn’t the worst actor-turned-director debut feature, but it is a drab, superficial affair with little to distinguish it.
Since coming to the attention of American audiences in his Oscar-winning turn as Colonel Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, Christoph Waltz hasn’t wanted for work, his post-2009 filmography rife with features directed by some of Hollywood’s most significant (and infamous) names. Dubious as the company he keeps often is, a number of the filmmakers Waltz has collaborated with are singularly talented artists, enough so that one could be optimistic about the prospects of the Austrian actor assuming directorial responsibilities on a feature-length film project. Well, any such hypothetical optimism shall be tested by Georgetown, Waltz’s English-language debut as a director (he previously directed Wenn man sich traut, a German made-for-TV rom com in 2000), which was released in Europe digitally last year and now arrives in U.S. cinemas this weekend.
Georgetown is by no means a disastrous movie, nor even a particularly bad one; it is drab though, no more than aesthetically competent, and reliant on a screenplay that dramatizes real-life events in plainly straightforward fashion. Drawing from the more informatively titled The New York Times Magazine article “The Worst Marriage in Georgetown,” Georgetown is a classic “stranger than fiction” type tale doubling as a character study that serves Waltz (credited as “C. Waltz” here) a role pretty perfectly suited to his talents and acting proclivities. The role in question is that of Ulrich Mott, a German expat living in D.C. and working as an intern on Capitol Hill, a position he hopes will get him an audience with Senators and politicians with sway over U.S. international foreign policy to whom he can pitch diplomacy theory. Something of an uncredentialled hobbyist in the field, and a social-climbing scammer in general (frequently lying about military credibility and occasionally wearing an eye patch for dramatic effect), Mott struggles to make inroads this way, but eventually hangs around enough high-profile parties to develop a relationship with Elsa Brecht (Vanessa Redgrave), a retired journalist and aging Georgetown socialite who is initially impressed and taken with Mott’s ambition and vague flirtations. Upon the death of her husband and despite an age gap of 20 some odd years, Elsa agrees to marry Mott, and the two of them are soon hosting parties with some regularity for the Georgetown elite, though we know from the film’s opening moments that all is not quite right in this home and that this peculiar union will end in uxoricide.
The rest of the film concerns itself with Mott’s arrest and criminal trial at the behest of Elsa’s daughter Amanda (Annette Bening), hopping back and forth through time to fill in the unusual details of Mott’s character and life, as his defense team (a misutilized, mostly bewildered Corey Hawkins, primarily) scrambles to build a case for this kooky narcissist. Alas, there isn’t much more to discuss about Georgetown beyond these plot beats and performances, as little time or attention is invested in anything else. The movie looks pretty consistently dull and ugly, rendered in this too-high def cinematography and color graded to a palette of beige and gray; totally characteristic of cinematographer Henry Braham whom Waltz must have linked with on David Yates’ The Legend of Tarzan (meanwhile, editor Brett M. Reed is very overqualified for this material, coming from working with Michael Mann, M. Night Shyamalan, and Kathryn Bigelow). It’s bizarre that, having crossed paths with a number of esteemed DPs, Waltz would opt to have his movie shot by one known for FX-driven, corporate sludge, but one must accept that Waltz’s vision for Georgetown doesn’t prioritize visual aesthetic. This is an acting showcase first and foremost, and one that Waltz ends up coming away from looking fine — Redgrave is the real standout here, dancing between victim and enabler roles spiritedly — but to what end? Georgetown offers little for our memories to hold on to outside of the Redgrave performance, and as with many such screenplays that fancy their subject more unbelievable than what the screenwriter’s imagination could have conjured, the one that playwright David Auburn has written for this production never bothers to establish an angle or perspective beyond the inherent weirdness of it all. Which is why Georgetown will bring to mind any number of films despite it being based in reality — Bernie, Behind The Candelabra, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil — the throughlines and similarities between these films (also all based on true stories) so apparent that you’d think that their recurrence across the culture might inspire a screenwriter to interrogate a new take on such material in grander, smarter terms. But alas, playwright David Auburn’s script for Georgetown opts to think about the relationship between Mott and Elsa in superficial terms; Waltz’s directing follows suit.