Is Joyce McKinney a delusional, manipulative narcissist? Or just a clever, plucky charmer who'll do anything for true love?
Errol Morris lets her tell her own story — and lets us decide for ourselves — in "Tabloid."
The master documentarian is having some fun here for the first time in a while. He's explored weighty topics with his most recent films, 2008's "Standard Operating Procedure" (about the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib) and 2003's Oscar-winning "The Fog of War" (about Robert McNamara, the U.S. defense secretary during much of the Vietnam War).
He employs the same straightforward interviewing style that has become his trademark, but in revisiting the late-'70s saga of a former beauty queen and the abducted Mormon who reportedly became her sex slave, he elicits answers that'll make you giggle rather than gasp.
"Tabloid" is a playful, voyeuristic guilty pleasure, an exploration of the wacky and tacky and our compulsive need to feed on such tales. It's got colorful characters who are all too willing to tell all and a tawdry, twisting story line that couldn't seem to get any weirder — and then it does. While it lacks the substance and insight of Morris' strongest work, it's consistently a kick, and with the recent collapse of Britain's News of the World, it couldn't be more relevant.
Back in 1977, the British tabloids competed fiercely over the story of McKinney, a perky blonde with a bright smile and a taste for the spotlight. As McKinney herself tells it today in her lively Southern drawl, she flew to England to find her Mormon missionary boyfriend and persuade him to come back to the United States and marry her. Once she was arrested, what she describes as a romantic retreat made headlines as a sordid tale of kidnapping and bondage in a remote country cottage.
While one publication sat down with her and let her share her side of what happened, the other went digging for dirt — and found the real source of income that allowed McKinney to travel so expensively and don so many disguises. Morris speaks to reporters, photographers, even the private pilot who flew McKinney to England and still has fond memories of what a sexy little firecracker she was.
Eventually, her seemingly innocent claims of simply being an incurable romantic throw off the vibe of creepy, clingy desperation. Her penchant for changing her looks, her story and her mind seem more pathetic than intriguing. Still, Morris' spirited pacing and the jaunty score from John Kusiak help maintain a tone that's part mocking, part suspenseful.
McKinney would probably be just as famous for being famous if she'd engaged in her misadventures today. The fame would just come quicker, hit harder and last a shorter time — until she could parlay it into a reality show or a jewelry line on some second-tier home shopping channel.
She's actually still thrusting herself into the limelight. Feeling as if Morris wronged her with "Tabloid," she's reportedly been showing up at screenings of the film, heckling and laughing loudly and making a spectacle of herself afterward. Maybe she'll appear live at a theater near you. You'll recognize her instantly: She'll be the one in the disguise.
"Tabloid," a Sundance Selects release, is rated R for sexual content and nudity. Running time: 88 minutes. Three stars out of four.