‘Framing John DeLorean’ Review: Meta-Doc Takes Various Tracks to Explore What Drove the Carmaker

Tribeca 2019: Alec Baldwin’s re-enactments don’t work at all, but the film achieves truthfulness when it sticks to traditional documentary

Framing John DeLorean
Sundance Selects

A curious experiment that may be best suited to the freedom of a festival setting, “Framing John DeLorean” aims to finally crack the mystery of its titular subject. As we learn early on, the erstwhile car magnate has inspired several filmmakers over many years, but few of them have, until now, gotten their projects off the ground. (One exception this film neglects to mention is recent festival competitor “Driven,” starring Lee Pace as DeLorean.)

Directors Sheena M. Joyce and Don Argott are not just up-front about the difficulty DeLorean’s personality poses; they turn his opacity into prime motivation. This ambitious approach is, unfortunately, more intriguing than effective. That may be because, as the filmmakers freely admit, DeLorean appears impossible to know. They do make an unusually concerted effort though, approaching him from no less than three separate angles.

At first it appears that we’re watching a traditional documentary, in which various colleagues and relatives share their observations alongside well-sourced footage. We learn about the workaholic General Motors executive who developed cars like the GTO, Firebird, and Grand Prix. We hear his trajectory all the way to renowned entrepreneur, as the CEO of the DeLorean Motor Company. His children tell us about his role as a devoted, upstanding father.

But if the story ended there, no one would be interested in making a movie about him today. On the personal side, it unfolds, he divorced his first wife to marry a teenager when he was in his 40s. His third wife, supermodel Cristina Ferrare, was famously and publicly loyal, until the day she left him and never looked back. And that happened after this upright paragon of American ingenuity wound up being arrested for an enormous cocaine deal, which he insisted he knew nothing about.

How to reconcile so many conflicting elements? Argott and Joyce have chosen to do so through both fictional re-enactments and off-screen analysis by the actors playing these characters. Re-enactments are tricky to pull off in the best of circumstances, and here they fall almost entirely flat. As DeLorean’s colleague, Bill Collins, Josh Charles is so underused as to be an afterthought. Morena Baccarin has a few nice moments as Ferrare, but can’t compete against the star charisma of the real woman as seen in original footage.

And DeLorean, well. You’d think landing Alec Baldwin as a lead would be a pretty big coup for independent documentarians. (He was a fan of their very fine museum doc, “The Art of the Steal.”) And he is as engaging as usual. But Baldwin doesn’t remotely resemble DeLorean, and the movie’s trick of interviewing him while he’s getting makeup and prostheses applied only highlights the fact that he’s been miscast.

Meshing this very challenge into the film’s structure is an admirably bold gambit, but one that ultimately doesn’t pay off. Baldwin and Baccarin spend a lot of time wondering what motivated DeLorean and Ferrare, but — like the movie itself — never come to any satisfying conclusion. Watching actors speculate on people they’ve never known just winds up feeling like a feint.

Much more effective are the real moments: the surveillance tape of DeLorean’s drug bust, footage of Phil Donahue publicly assessing his guest’s failures to his face, the open disgust of an agent who helped take him down. Also memorable is the revelation that the DeLorean time machine in “Back to the Future” — which turned out to be, improbably, its creator’s most lasting legacy — was almost a refrigerator instead.

And most compelling of all are the interviews with the two people who come closest to answering, or at least addressing, the question that overwhelms this entire project. DeLorean’s daughter Kathryn and son Zach are fascinatingly candid in their analysis of a deeply complex man. They grapple openly and thoughtfully with the many contradictions in his history, from his heights as a Manhattan multi-millionaire to his final, bankrupt days in a one-bedroom apartment in New Jersey.

As Zach says, his dad’s story ought to make for an ideal movie. “I mean, it’s got all the good s— in it,” he notes. “It’s got cocaine, it’s got f—in’ hot chicks, it’s got sports cars, f—in’ Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the war on drugs, you got FBI agents, you got f—in’ hardcore drug dealers… ” He’s right: that does sound like an inevitable blockbuster. And his insistent honesty all the way through strips away the trickery employed by both his father and, now, his father’s long-awaited life story.