⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Run Time: 1 hour 39 minutes
Stars: Christoph Waltz, Vanessa Redgrave, Annette Bening
Writer: David Auburn
Director: Christoph Waltz
Now in theaters and streaming; on DVD June 22
One can just imagine Christoph Waltz, those dancing eyes aglimmer, reading Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Auburn’s screenplay for Georgetown — the true story of a consummate German conman who clambered to the heights of 1990s Washington, D.C. power brokers solely on the strength of his own chutzpah.
Well, chutzpah and a convenient marriage to an influential Georgetown socialite who, after providing her charming, much-younger husband with all the social entrées he required, suffered a mysterious death that caught the eyes of police investigators.
Clearly, Waltz saw not only an outrageously colorful character to play, but also an opportunity to direct his first theatrical film. He acquits himself admirably on both counts, surrounding Ulrich Mott — an unreasonably self-assured, transparently phony yet irresistibly charming poseur — with a lush, swirling menagerie of self-important politicians who ask only to be flattered shamelessly and pampered with silver-plated dinner parties.
At first, the arrangement between Mott and his aristocratic spouse, Elsa, seems to be working out fine: Although he’s gay, Mott provides charming companionship and household help for Elsa — while she gives him entrée to some of DC’s heaviest hitters, hosting them at intimate dinner parties. In one of the film’s most delightful scenes, Mott invites former French Prime Minister Michel Rocard and Senator Chuck Hagel to an intimate dinner party, telling each man that the event is in celebration of the other. “I’d like to toast our guest of honor,” Mott says, without indicating precisely who is being toasted — and both men nod modest smiles of acknowledgement.
It all goes south as even brazen Mott begins to fold under his elaborately constructed fake life. He and Elsa begin to bicker bitterly, and when she dies suddenly, her infuriated daughter Amanda — a fire-breathing Annette Bening — vows to pin Mott with a murder rap.
There are few cinematic treats more thrilling than witnessing actors clicking on all cylinders, and you get three of them doing just that in Georgetown. Besides Waltz’s Mott — always grinning and glad-handing, at least when he’s not steeped in self-loathing bouts of drunkenness — there’s the incomparable Vanessa Redgrave as the object of his duplicitous affections. Redgrave’s Elsa is as aflutter as a schoolgirl when Mott begins to woo her; but you don’t host kings and presidents in your townhome parlor for 60 years without developing a steel spine, and soon she’s asserting herself, perhaps a bit too much for Mott’s comfort.
Bening isn’t asked to do much other than sputter with resentment as Mott draws Amanda’s uncharacteristically pliant mother into his orbit — and then narrow her eyes in bloodthirsty resolve as she pursues a murder case against him. But Bening has made a career excavating layers beneath the skins of even the most cursory of characters, and here she’s in fine, seething, “Don’t mess with me” form.
But on both sides of the camera, the star here is Waltz, who provides Mott with a larger-than-life, almost operatic persona (fittingly, perhaps, since the Vienna-born actor is one of Europe’s most visionary opera directors). Mott is a joy to behold in action, inflating his influence and accomplishments with delirious bravura. In those moments, Georgetown becomes something truly special: A guilty pleasure that trades on the occasional pleasures of guilt.
Featured image: Vanessa Redgrave and Christoph Waltz in Georgetown (Alan Markfield/Paramount Pictures)
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