What must it be like to play poker with Christoph Waltz? For all the actor’s charms, subtlety doesn’t seem to come naturally to him. Granted, Waltz was a revelation as the unnervingly appealing Nazi colonel in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” but in most of the roles that have followed, he’s tipped his hand with each exaggerated expression, working his elastic face like some kind of live-action cartoon character.
That’s an especially odd approach to take in playing a con artist, as he does in “Georgetown,” since no one in the real world would believe a man who telegraphs his true intentions quite so transparently. But seeing as this is also Waltz’s directorial debut, signed under the name “C. Waltz,” he can surround himself with similarly vaudevillian performances from otherwise excellent actors — including Vanessa Redgrave and Annette Bening — whose natural tendency has been to underplay their characters’ emotions.
Written by “Proof” playwright David Auburn, “Georgetown” was based on a juicy 2012 New York Times story about a D.C. social climber arrested for strangling his 91-year-old wife, through whom he had gained access to many powerful people, hosting soirees for journalists, ambassadors, and such political heavy-hitters as Antonin Scalia and Dick Cheney. A disingenuous end-credits disclaimer suggests that Waltz’s character, Ulrich Mott, is “not to be confused with” Albrecht Muth — who was a good 44 years younger than his wife and, according to the story, had affairs with men throughout their marriage — though the feint is clearly intended to underscore the connection.
Theirs wouldn’t be the first D.C. union to survive more for strategic reasons than for romantic ones. As Muth once told a reporter who pried: “Why does Secretary Clinton remain with President Clinton?” Or in one of his fictionalized equivalent’s most revealing lines — quite possibly the only one audiences can reasonably interpret as being truthful — Mott offers the following during a police interrogation: “Have you ever had conjugal relations with a woman in her early nineties? Well, neither have I.”
Washington, and the world in general, are full of fabulists and self-made legends, and while no two of these tricksters are the same, Mott strikes us as an instantly recognizable and compelling character. But the challenge in making movies about such frauds is to find an angle where audiences see them as sympathetic while they go about lying and swindling their way up the ladder — which is all the more challenging when the story opens with a corpse (here, “Reversal of Fortune,” about the Claus von Bülow case, springs to mind).
The irony of Muth/Mott’s story is that he might well have gotten away with it — his wife was 91, after all, and at that age, falls can be fatal — if he hadn’t made a case of wanting to catch her killer. In the film, after discovering the body of his wife Elsa Brecht (Redgrave) following a late-night walk, Mott makes that pledge to her grown daughter Amanda (Bening), a law professor who never much cared for her mom’s obsequious new husband. Earlier the same night, we see Mott in action, juggling the roles of cook and master of ceremonies for a party of influencers at which Amanda can barely contain her contempt — which is Waltz’s way, putting whatever feelings people try hardest to hide right there on the surface for the audience to read.
Movies aren’t obliged to be realistic, of course, although “Georgetown” stops just a whisker short of having everyone Mott attempts to manipulate roll his eyes while Waltz’s character makes his pitch. There’s the scene where Mott, wearing an eye patch, accosts Michel Rocard (Jean Pearson), former prime minister of France, about his scheme: He’s looking for supporters of his new NGO, an ambiguously peace-peddling social network known as the “Eminent Persons Group.” Or the one a short time later when Mott, this time minus the eye patch, cements an advantageous partnership by craftily hosting a dinner in honor of both Rocard and Sen. Chuck Hagel (Richard Blackburn), which plays like something out of an old-fashioned French farce.
It’s downright tricky to maintain the tone Waltz is going for here, but the story is consistently outrageous enough to keep us guessing, and Redgrave goes a long way to offset the lunacy of it all by playing Brecht like the love-struck newlywed from some old silent film, batting her eyelashes at him one moment and signaling his next move via a helpful nod or glance the next. As in Richard Linklater’s comparably kooky “Bernie” (about another May-December situation that ended in murder), the movie attempts to avoid judgment as it explores the complex psychology of a relationship that appeared to have worked — at least a lot of the time — for both parties, however unconventional it seemed from the outside.
But apart from the virtual non-mystery of Brecht’s murder, there’s still the matter of Mott’s political dealings, which is the arena where Waltz’s performance seems best suited to the film: The real Muth was a teenage intern on Capitol Hill when he met Brecht, but rather than cast a younger actor, Waltz portrays the indignity of doing that job at age 50, and leverages to show why he was so motivated to find entry into a political world none too welcoming of a German immigrant.
And yet, his foreignness allowed him to spin elaborate stories of military service — first in the French Foreign Legion (which is plausible enough) and later as a brigadier general in the Iraqi army — and to claim personal associations with Kofi Annan and Muqtada al-Sadr, whose inner camp he took it upon himself to infiltrate. Or so he claimed. Waltz shows ambition in juggling Mott’s stories with “the truth” (an idea always implied in quotes here), working with DP Henry Braham to orchestrate dynamic situations and complex camera moves that reinforce the idea of the character’s Graham Greene-worthy delusions of grandeur. But instead of getting more interesting as it goes on, Waltz’s performance grows tiresome. The shtick may have been enough to ensnare a lonely nonagenarian, but after a point, it stops being as cute as Waltz wants to believe it is.