Andrew Jarecki's Capturing the Friedmans was a voyeuristic documentary that observed the Friedman family observing itself: The dad and son were caught engaged in pedophilia and accused of child molestation, and the rest of the family copes with the shock. Throughout the legal process, the Friedmans took extensive home movies, which Jarecki employs along with new material to paint a powerfully hellish family portrait. It's immensely memorable.
Jarecki is back with his feature debut, All Good Things. Though not a documentary, the film is based on real characters and events hardly less lurid than Capturing the Friedmans. All Good Things is a portrait of the Durst family, a New York City real estate dynasty so successful that The New York Times refers to their holdings as an "empire."
That's not to say that the family isn't without its closet skeletons. Mama Durst killed herself in the 1950s. Her son, Robert, watched as she jumped off the roof of their mansion. Daddy Durst overbears and bullies. Later in life, Robert's wife, Kathleen, disappeared, presumably murdered. He was the main suspect, though the case has never been solved.
The movie spins this — and a whole lot more that I can't divulge without massive movie spoilage, though it's all a matter of public record — into the fictional Marks family. Robert becomes David Marks (Ryan Gosling). Kathleen is Katie (Kirsten Dunst), and the Durst paterfamilias translates as Sanford Marks (Frank Langella).
That Jarecki is drawn to this material isn't surprising. The film starts in earnest in 1971, as David meets and falls in love with Katie. David rejects his father's repeated entreaties to join the family business. Instead, David opens a health food store in Vermont. Jarecki captures this idyllic time period — David and Katie at the threshold of a fabulous life together — with warm instant-nostalgia tones. (Fittingly, the young couple records each other with a home-movie camera.)
The Marks are the kind of family that has senators over for cocktail parties. It reminds me of Chris Rock's bit about the difference between being rich and being wealthy. The Marks are wealthy.
Sanford eventually gets his way, and David is brought into the fold. His duties include collecting cash from tenants such as massage parlors and peep shows. It has the whiff of illegality — and Times Square looks like it's from Taxi Driver's B-roll. Working for his father is a bad move for David's mental state, and it's bad for his marriage.
Up to here, the movie glides, but it can't sustain the momentum. All Good Things has the bones of a terrific film about mysterious true-life crime and privilege, the likes of Reversal of Fortune.
David refuses to have kids and starts abusing his wife. Katie gets into med school and into c-c-c-c-cocaine. But scenes seem to be missing or given short-shrift. What was engrossing becomes jumpy, and the characters suffer for it. The material is there and the performances are good, but the film as edited doesn't hang together in the second half. Katie's doesn't turn out to be the mystery.
How did David go from the kid full of bright promise to an absolute cuckoo bird? The movie doesn't have a coherent answer. A Google search is, ultimately, more engaging.
Opening Friday, January 21st
Studio on the Square