'All Good Things' Dulls Down Reality
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
One of the many differences between reality and fiction is that, in fiction, there's more often than not an expectation that the things people do will make sense. If you were writing a novel about a troubled scion of a New York real estate dynasty, and this fellow decided he needed to disappear to escape the pressure attending the reopening of a long-dormant missing persons case pertaining to his vanished wife, you wouldn't have the fellow move to Galveston, Texas, and rent a shoddy apartment and disguise himself as a mute woman. Because that's kind of random to the point of absurdity, no? Even if, say, the fellow had witnessed his own mother's suicide. No, you'd want some scenario that wouldn't play quite so awkwardly.
And yet the facts in the case of real-life free man Robert Durst, whose life inspired the new film "All Good Things," are just so. Durst, who earlier in this decade took an over $50 million payout in exchange for agreeing, in effect, to give up all claims on the rest of his family's money -- so you can just imagine how much makes up the rest -- is widely thought to have engineered the 1980s disappearance of his first wife, and to have been behind the execution-style murder of his old friend Susan Berman, who was killed within days of being asked for an interview about the case in 2000. The only crime Durst has been convicted and done time for is improper disposal of a corpse, said corpse having once been a friend that he made during his life as a female impersonator, and whom Durst convinced a jury of having killed in self-defense.
Director Andrew Jarecki fictionalizes Durst here as "David Marks" and tells his twisted story bearing in mind the old chestnut from Renoir's "Rules of the Game" stating that the truly terrible thing in this life is that every man has his reasons. As the film opens in the early '70s, we're given to understand that the reason Ryan Gosling's David smokes so much dope, and is so reluctant to enter the family business, has a lot to do with his imperious, lizard-like father (Frank Langella) and his dead mother. After meeting and charming Katie (Kirsten Dunst), a beautiful tenant of one of his dad's buildings, David tries to chuck his birthright, such as it is, and moves to Vermont and opens a health food store, whose name gives this film its ironical title. But he can't quite stand up to his dad, and winds up capitulating to him, becoming in effect his bag man (as the family's fortune is, in fact, tied to Times Square acreage housing all manner of skeevy "adult" businesses). His unhappiness also manifests itself in a horror of having children of his own, but the sweet, optimistic Katie misread her husband and allows herself to become pregnant, leading to the estrangement that marks the beginning of David's path to monstrousness.
Working from a script he developed with writers Marc Smerling and Marcus Hinchey, Jarecki, who shook up moviegoers with the thoroughly unsettling documentary "Capturing the Friedmans," never quite gets a handle on the sprawling story he compresses to a little over 90 minutes here: Sometimes he goes for a domestic melodrama feel, others for a suspense or shock effect. He never really achieves either one, leaving his cast's efforts (and all of the very capable actors here do their level best) to flounder in a bland, flat, tentative context. The point is not, as some reviews have suggested, that this story ought to have been told in a documentary; it's more that Jarecki's sincere, conventional approach here does the bizarre and tragic material no favors. In the hands of an acute, sardonic cinematic anthropologist like Barbet Schroeder (who did such a great job with the comparably bizarre factual circumstances of his "Reversal of Fortune"), a more trenchant, corrosive and mordantly funny film might have resulted. Instead, what we have here is a somewhat higher grade of a Lifetime true-crime picture.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.