Review: Christoph Waltz’s Georgetown Is an Insightful Satire Grounded by Convention

It’s an occasionally amusing and insightful beltway satire that’s ultimately undone by its conventional mise-en-scène and predictable plot.

Photo: Paramount Pictures

The tale told in Georgetown feels like a subplot that didn’t make the final cut of Joel and Ethan Coen’s Burn After Reading, only to then be expanded into its own feature film. Based on the real-life marriage between Albrecht Muth and Viola Herms Drath, it tells the story of a middle-aged German social climber, Ulrich Mott (Christoph Waltz), living in Washington, D.C. who seduces and marries a much older socialite, Elsa Brecht (Vanessa Redgrave), as a means of launching his career in politics. A fraud in every respect, Ulrich soon uses Elsa’s personal connections to start a political consulting firm, with people like George Soros and Robert McNamara on its board of directors. With this specious legitimacy under his belt, Ulrich expends his newfound influence on an attempt to single-handedly reshape American foreign policy and bring peace to the Middle East.

Like Burn After Reading, Georgetown casts a satirical eye on Washington outsiders who misconstrue their place in our capital’s political hierarchy and meddle in affairs far beyond their understanding or capabilities. Waltz’s feature directorial debut has moments of keen critical insight into a contemporary phenomenon in modern politics, where people with little relevant experience or knowledge end up in positions of great influence and high-level decision-making. And at its boldest, Georgetown implies that the project of international relations itself is inherently a kind of fraud, undertaken by imposters who often have little more than a superficial understanding of the tasks at hand.

Too often, however, the world of D.C. politics functions as little more than window dressing for the plot, which nominally revolves around a murder mystery involving the protagonists’ unusual May-December romance. Ulrich’s professional fraudulence mirrors his personal and sexual deception, as Elsa gradually learns that he’s not who he claims to be on any level. Occasionally, his closeted sexual behavior functions as a witty thematic reflection of his similarly misleading self-representation to American security organizations and foreign governments. In these moments, David Auburn’s screenplay develops its underlying comparison between sexual and political imposture in rich, subtle ways. But such moments are largely overshadowed by the film’s unsuspenseful and tedious noir trappings.

Like the self-aggrandizing, egotistical fools in the comic noirs of the Coens, Ulrich is full of hot air and less intelligent than he believes himself to be. This leads to some clever dialogue and moments of fine, self-aware scenery-chewing, thanks to the outstanding performances of the film’s two leads. Waltz and Redgrave hurl insults, furniture, and occasionally even food at one another with delirious aplomb. And Waltz directs these scenes with melodramatic savor, allowing each character’s deep-seated hatreds and insecurities to manifest themselves in spit, sweat, and pulsing veins, giving physical life to the venomous words in the script.

Unfortunately, the film’s drab aesthetics often lend the proceedings a stage-bound quality. With a color palette consisting primarily of beige and off-white, as well as anemic blues, the cinematography reflects the mundane nature of the story’s bureaucratic settings, but a more creative use of the camera and set design might have offset some of the film’s more enervating scenes. For one, Ulrich’s monotonous series of nearly identical solitary walks, conferences, and dinner and cocktail parties soon become indistinguishable from one another.

Furthermore, the film’s noir elements—deception, betrayal, sexual intrigue, homicide—are treated too lightly to feel truly menacing; the characters and proceedings are more ridiculous than tragic. Combined with the murder mystery at its heart, the solution to which is never really in doubt, Georgetown adds up to an occasionally amusing and insightful beltway satire that’s ultimately undone by its conventional mise-en-scène and predictable plot.

 Cast: Christoph Waltz, Annette Bening, Vanessa Redgrave, Corey Hawkins, Caroline Palmer, Noam Jenkins, Sergio Di Zio, Paulino Nunes  Director: Christoph Waltz  Screenwriter: David Auburn  Distributor: Paramount Pictures  Running Time: 99 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2019

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