In Tabloid, the new documentary from the greatest of contemporary documentary filmmakers, Errol Morris reveals that celebrity culture has infested itself in our society, making stars out of unremarkable individuals, handing out microphones instead of meds to the mentally unstable. Stop the presses. Since, approximately, A Face in the Crowd (1957), there have been a plethora of examinations on this topic in the realms of fiction and nonfiction alike: Quiz Show, Robert Redford's brilliant 1994 drama on the "21" game show scandal, remaining for me the most incisive. Tabloid offers nothing new beyond a story that many of us may not know or remember -- a story which, after 80-some-odd minutes, I couldn't fathom why Morris wasted his time telling.
On second thought, it's pretty clear: After pet cemeteries (Gates of Heaven), the criminal justice system (The Thin Blue Line), Holocaust denial (Dr. Death), Vietnam (The Fog of War), and Abu Ghraib (Standard Operating Procedure), Morris wanted to tackle something more frivolous. He found frivolity du jour in Joyce McKinney, a beauty pageant queen who, in the 1970s, fell in love with a Mormon missionary, who fled to England with McKinney and a band of accomplices in hot pursuit. It was in the U.K. where she tracked down her would-be paramour, kidnapped him at gunpoint, then held him hostage for (in her words) "three days of fun, food, and sex" before he escaped again and she was arrested, tried and imprisoned. Juicy stuff, at least for a half-hour or so, when Morris's clever visuals (scandal sheet headlines blaring across the screen as his interviewee's reminisce) and breakneck editing keep things lively. McKinney herself is the primary subject, and for a while her loopy conviction stares down the unnerving gaze of Morris's notorious Interrotron to a draw.
Soon enough, though, it becomes apparent that we are listening to a madwoman, and as McKinney prattles on endlessly, watching the movie starts to feel like being trapped at the edge of a dinner table with a companion whose clutches you can't escape. For squirm humor to work, it helps to have a normalizing presence to balance things out, and the surprisingly few accompanying interviewees that Morris offers -- a pair of sleazy British tabloid reporters, a Korean scientist out of The Manchurian Candidate -- provide no respite. Everyone (i.e., six interviewees total) is a loon in Tabloid, which may be Morris's idea of a universal indictment but instead magnifies his subject's own instability. "The man has to be dragged from the spotlight with his teeth marks still on it," one of the most memorable lines from Paul Attanasio's highly memorable Quiz Show script, applies to Joyce McKinney as well. Making a movie about her life is the kind of help she doesn't need.
It may just be that I'm the wrong audience for tales of obsessive love. Years of rejection and restraining orders tend to dull one's emotional responses, to where the novels of Jane Austen always drove me a little nuts, and I veered widely around the Bronte sisters, including Jane Eyre and all of its cinematic adaptations til now. (Their American counterpart, Edith Wharton, explored similar themes with a coiled anger and sharp thrust that was always more my speed.) As a non-reader of the book I found Cary Fukunaga's film mildly engaging, though after only a few weeks I can barely remember a single scene. His previous film, the overpraised Sin Nombre (2009), had a similar effect, illustrating the fine line between craftsmanship that's invisible and the kind that's forgettable.
What I recall most from Jane Eyre are the expressions of Mia Wasikowska, who has four or five more things going on across her face than Fukanaga manages for the entire movie. Faithful readers of this blog already know that I think Wasikowska is one of the best young actresses around, something that's been obvious since she burst out of the TV screen in season one of HBO's In Treatment. She makes a perfectly capable Jane, yet her more natural presence in In Treatment and The Kids Are All Right suggests that her strengths lie in contemporary portraits. She's as modern an actress as Keira Knightley and shows more range, yet Knightley's star turn in Pride & Prejudice had more impact because she had a director, Joe Wright, who developed his entire modernized approach to the material around her performance (to mostly successful results).
Wasikowska blends in to Jane Eyre when she should be standing out, and she has disappointingly little chemistry with Michael Fassbender, whose brooding, haunted Rochester -- while passable -- hasn't even half the magnetism that this terrific actor is capable of. Fassbender fared better with the prickly newcomer Katie Jarvis in Fish Tank, whereas Wasikowska's best (if Platonic) pairing to date has been Gabriel Byrne in In Treatment, who couldn't get anything going with Winona Ryder way back in Little Women, who bewitched Daniel Day-Lewis in The Crucible, who had previously, unsuccessfully rejected her for Michelle Pfeiffer in Scorsese's Wharton adaptation The Age of Innocence. Matchmaking in movies may be even more unpredictable than in real life.