The “Season of Scam” quickly established itself as a dominant cultural narrative in 2019 with Hulu and Netflix’s dueling Fyre Festival documentaries in January and continued with multiple projects unraveling the depths of Elizabeth Holmes’ deception with her company Theranos. By the time details of the Operation Varsity Blues college admissions sting came to light, it became inevitable — scammer season was probably going to extend to the full year. It’s in this context that I viewed Christoph Waltz’s theatrical directorial debut, Georgetown (provided distribution comes through). Given the quality of the film, it’s highly likely that some viewers will see it in another cultural frame. Georgetown is far from an egregious festival bomb, but Waltz’s directorial craftsmanship lacks the flair of his performance work. Perhaps that’s why, in the credits, the director is credited as “C. Waltz,” as if to put some distance between Waltz the filmmaker and Waltz the actor.
To call the film a failure implies that it actually tried to succeed, which I’m not sure it does. Georgetown provides color-by-numbers political intrigue and thrills, served with a side dish of humor that’s only debatably intentional. Waltz, in either of his capacities on the film, never makes a strong read or judgment on his character, the scheming and enigmatic Ulrich Mott.
Pultizer Prize-winning playwright David Auburn crafts a lightly fictionalized version of the character from a real-life figure, whose exploits were chronicled in Georgetown’s source text, Franklin Foer’s 2012 article for The New York Times Magazine “The Worst Marriage in Georgetown.” Ulrich is something of an inside-the-Beltway Bernie, a figure similar to Jack Black’s cinematic May-December romantic supplicant to a wealthy older woman. He wins over the heart of Vanessa Redgrave’s Elsa Brecht, even being so bold as to court her while still married to her first husband, before using her wealth and stature to launch his own political ambitions. (In actuality, per Foer, Mott began his pursuit when he was a teenage intern… and Elsa’s real-life counterpart was in her 60s.) Using his NGO Eminent Persons Group, a pitch-perfect string of empty Washington jargon, Ulrich managed to weasel his way into prominent national security and diplomatic circles.
These events are interesting. Their portrayal is not. Auburn and Waltz show the most concern with laying out the facts of what happened, but the awkward stop-and-start dual timeline structure of conniving past and punitive present prevents the film from establishing a consistent tone. Meanwhile, they evince little interest in pondering why one might even care to watch this story in the first place. On-screen scams are not the point; it’s all in what they reveal about the scammer and the people who wanted to believe them. Georgetown has no interest in skewering or satirizing the easy target of Washington elites. All the power players are but interchangeable pieces on Ulrich’s chess board. Maybe that would work in a film that delved more into his psychology, but he’s a character with no articulated thematic or representational value.
I’ve had some reservations with Waltz showing limited range in his work since rising to international prominence as Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds a decade ago. He’s shown limited deviation from the performance that won him an Oscar and has not shown himself to be above the law of diminished returns. Yet at the very least, these performances usually show some understanding of the character. Waltz has a way into the villainy he’s so often tasked with portraying. The work may feel familiar, but at the very least, it also feels internally coherent. Waltz’s Ulrich, however, plays a bit like a collection of the actor’s familiar tics.
Is the character a particularly gifted opportunist? A psychopathic compulsive liar? A low-rent con artist in a super zip? Viewers can’t know because it appears that Georgetown itself doesn’t know or, worse, doesn’t care. Waltz is content to watch his character simply do the things he did. That’s at least better than what Annette Bening gets as Elsa’s daughter, Catherine, an entirely reactive character who serves as little more than a reaction GIF providing cues to the audience. This isn’t to criticize the actress, only to say she has earned — and deserves — better.
There are ways to make this kind of a movie engaging. War Dogs, for example, employs a pervasive cynicism as two yahoos strip a State Department program for parts. The Informant! takes a cheeky trip into the delusions of its deceitful protagonist. Georgetown, meanwhile, has the bare minimum.
Follow Marshall Shaffer on Twitter (@media_marshall).