Georgetown deftly takes the brittle narcissism and toxic identity crisis of The Talented Mr. Ripley and transplants it to the gossipy power circles of Washington D.C. The result is a tidy, genteel little crime drama about a savvy sociopath who uses people and meddles in world events, all for the glorification of his own tender ego. Some audiences may find this film to be too mannered and deliberate, but I enjoyed watching Christoph Waltz’s character spin the webs that will eventually ensnare him. Even better, all this well-heeled wackiness is based on real-life events.
Waltz plays Ulrich Mott, a middle-aged chameleon who starts off as an intern for an Ohio congressman. He is amiable and intellectually agile, but power and influence elude Mott. The Beltway is all about who ya know, and Mott is an eccentric nobody with no connections. Frustrated, he hatches an audacious plan to change all that: Mott charms Elsa Brecht (Vanessa Redgrave), a wealthy, influential socialite in her early 80s. He says all the right things, and offers this depressed widow the spark of adventure and mystery. Mott wiggles his way into Brecht’s life, leading to a strange, flimsy romance.
Amanda (Annette Bening), Brecht’s chilly, cerebral daughter, immediately suspects something’s up with this quirky man and his off-putting pleasantness. She’s even more chagrined when Brecht marries Mott and supplies him with the financial and political capital for his social-climbing shenanigans. Amanda is convinced that Mott is an accomplished liar, but his true motives remain meticulously hidden. Can she make sense of his enigma before it’s too late?
That’s all the plot I want to give. Georgetown chucks a few knuckleballs, and part of the fun is watching them wobble over home plate. To complete that metaphor, Mott is the increasingly weary pitcher at the mound: Sweaty, addled, but determined to be the hero carried off the field. This reveals the key paradox of his character: It’s not that Mott necessarily wants to make a difference in the world. He just wants all the credit for it.
Waltz (who also debuts as a director) is nothing short of phenomenal in the lead role. His Mott is an older, more pitiful variant of Spieberg’s protagonist in Catch Me If You Can: Like Frank Abagnale, Mott becomes whatever the situation requires him to be. It’s really just a matter of changing his uniform and tweaking the narrative a little bit. Waltz clearly has good time playing Mott, as he crafts one nutball fiction after another.
Redgrave carefully supplies her character with emotional layers: Brecht is proud–even vain–lonely, playful, and profoundly sad. Combined, these make her the perfect mark for Mott’s socio-political Ponzi scheme. As with Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar-winning turn in The Father, Redgrave proves that she’s as good as ever, even well into her 80s. Only Bening, who mostly glowers during courtroom scenes, gets squandered as the worrywart daughter.
As I said before, some viewers may grow frustrated with the pinkies-out machinations of a bunch of D.C. hobnobbers. Indeed, this movie is loaded with erudite people who live on crab cakes and Perrier-Jouët. All the big speeches and rehearsed laughter may wear some people out. As for me, I was fascinated by the man at the center of it all: Ulrich Mott lived his best life while standing in spiritual quicksand. The only way to get everything he ever wanted was to get in over his head.
99 min. R.