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‘Georgetown’: Stylish directing debut from Christoph Waltz, starring as a charmer not to be believed

Vanessa Redgrave plays the con artist’s much older wife, whose murder is shocking but not all that mysterious.

In “Georgetown,” Elsa (Vanessa Redgrave) raises a glass with her much younger husband, Ulrich (Christoph Waltz, who also directs).
Paramount Home Entertainment

Christoph Waltz is such a master at playing debonair and duplicitous manipulators it almost works against him in the Beltway con movie “Georgetown,” as he’s so obviously full of … beans, we wonder why anyone would fall for his nonsense.

But that’s just it. About half the characters who come into contact with Waltz’s Ulrich Mott clearly don’t believe his spiel — but even some of those folks are impressed by his game and sometimes wonder: Maybe this guy is the real deal after all. Nah! But maybe …

Smart, sly and subtle, “Georgetown” is in the tradition of “Reversal of Fortune,” “The Informant!” and “Catch Me If You Can” — fictionalized and stylized entertainment based on true crime events. Granted, the opening title card tells us, “This story does not in any way claim to be the truth,” and the film closes with another disclaimer, but come on. The screenplay by playwright David Auburn is obviously inspired by “The Worst Marriage in Georgetown,” Franklin Foer’s brilliant 2012 New York Times Magazine piece about one Albrecht Muth, a slippery character who was 44 years younger than his wife, the esteemed D.C.-based journalist Viola Drath, and was convicted in her 2011 murder.

In the movie, Waltz (who is making his directorial debut under the name of “C. Waltz”) doesn’t play Albrecht Muth — he’s Ulrich Mott. The legendary Vanessa Redgrave isn’t Viola Drath; she’s Elsa Brecht. Oooh, fiction.

We pick up the story on the night of Elsa’s death, which was preceded by a power broker dinner hosted by the 50ish Ulrich in the Georgetown row house he shared with his 91-year-old wife, Elsa, who spends most of the evening resting in bed before making an entrance just as dinner is being served. The party guests buzz about Ulrich, with some wondering exactly who he is and how he has established so many connections; one woman says he’s “Lawrence of Arabia with a Blackberry.” (Hey. It’s the early 2010s.)

The one attendee who sees right through Ulrich even as he spins one tale after another about pulling off some diplomatic trick is Elsa’s daughter Amanda (Annette Bening, excellent as always), who has been suspicious of this smooth-talking operator ever since Ulrich swooped into her mother’s life at a White House Correspondents Dinner (he had conned his way in) and started courting her shortly after Elsa buried her husband.

Who IS Ulrich Mott? He’s a native German who claims to have served in the French Foreign Legion and says he’s currently a brigadier general in the Iraq Army — all part of his grand plan to broker agreements between the U.S. and Iraq. With the help of the smitten Elsa and her vast connections, Ulrich manages to insert himself into the upper echelons of Washington, D.C., political society, charming senators and ambassadors and Cabinet members with his culinary skills and generous pours of wine and his knowledge of foreign affairs and his humble-brag stories about his participation in cloak-and-dagger affairs across the globe. Ulrich is a rather ridiculous figure, parading about wearing military uniforms or suits with vaguely defined medals on the lapel — and yet there are times when it appears as if he really can get things done.

After the aforementioned dinner party, Ulrich and Elsa get into a heated argument — nothing new, as Elsa has come to the realization Ulrich is nothing more than a cheap con artist — and Ulrich storms out for a long walk. When he returns, he finds Elsa dead. The coroner rules the death a homicide, and we all know who the prime suspect is.

Like many actors making their directorial debuts, Waltz is a bit too infatuated with attention-getting moves, e.g., having the camera dipping this way and that like an eavesdropping guest in the dinner party scene. Overall, though, “Georgetown” is a well-made, briskly paced, intriguing story — more of a “he-done-it” than a whodunit.

Often when I see a sharp true-crime series, I think about who could star in the fictional version. This time around, I’m thinking about how great it would be if Netflix or HBO commissioned a three-part doc series about the real-life figures of Albrecht Muth and Viola Drath.