Framing John DeLorean, a reenactment-heavy documentary by Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce, leans strongly on a complaint that is no longer true: Talking to several screenwriters and producers who have wanted to make movies about the carmaker’s Icarus-like story, it laments, “Still, to this day, not one’s been made.”
The filmmakers are ignoring Driven, which enlisted high-profile actors (Jason Sudeikis, Lee Pace, Judy Greer) and focused on the drug sting that will forever overshadow DeLorean’s legacy. Driven played at last year’s Venice and Toronto fests, and appears still to be seeking distribution, while this doc (whose reenactments boast a cast led by Alec Baldwin) is faring little better with a two-screen theatrical rollout. The quiet release isn’t inappropriate: Though Framing John DeLorean offers a more comprehensive look at a flamboyant subject’s life, it doesn’t entirely do justice to the tale, and the meta-movie nature of its dramatized scenes does little to help.
The pic’s nonfiction side plays largely by the book, even if its emphasis on pop culture — both on the quest to make biopics and on that little 1980s time-travel franchise that ensured DeLorean’s namesake car would live into the Future — distracts a bit from biography.
We hear about how the young DeLorean helped create the muscle car, introducing the high-powered GTO as an options package on an otherwise unsexy model when his superiors wouldn’t let him start a new car line. Success had him poised to take over General Motors, but his personal style stood out in that staid corporate culture: He got plastic surgery, married a 19-year-old supermodel and spent weekends in California. When his showboating got him ejected from the company, DeLorean spun the firing as evidence of his shake-things-up heroism. Needing to turn failure into a bigger success, he launched plans to create the first new mass-production auto company in decades.
When they cut to staged material, Joyce and Argott demonstrate a puzzling reluctance to commit. They’ve convinced Baldwin, Josh Charles, Morena Baccarin and others to play their real-life subjects, but instead of transporting us straight back to the dawn of the ’80s, they linger backstage. We hang out with Baldwin as he has his makeup done and discusses his take on the character; we watch as he second-guesses his directors, suggesting camera angles for the notorious scene in which federal officials arrested DeLorean. When we get to the film’s actual reenactments, the talented cast can’t create the illusion of reality, and scenes feel like one of the high-production-value fake movies John Oliver delivers occasionally on Last Week Tonight.
The neither-fish-nor-fowl nature of things isn’t just fatal for the reenactments. It hobbles the more straightforward parts of the film, which have plenty of built-in pathos to balance the glamour of the stainless steel, gull-winged sportscar DeLorean wanted to give the world. Men who were part of the DeLorean Motor Company from the start share their perspectives on engineering and manufacturing matters; others detail some of the corners the businessman cut while trying to make his dream real.
Framing John DeLorean is attentive to a poignant aspect of this story that has been mostly lost in the popular memory: Having built its factories in Northern Ireland thanks to government incentives, the DMC gave good jobs to a depressed community and created an environment where Catholics and Protestants worked together harmoniously. Interviewees suggest that a desire to protect his employees was behind many of DeLorean’s poor decisions, and the film partly wins our sympathy. But it may take a third pic to really do justice to the operatic downfall that resulted.
Production companies: 9/14 Pictures, XYZ Films
Distributor: Sundance Selects
Cast: Alec Baldwin, Morena Baccarin, Josh Charles, Dean Winters, Michael Rispoli
Directors: Don Argott, Sheena M. Joyce
Screenwriters: Dan Greeney, Alexandra Orton
Producers: Tamir Ardon, Don Argott, Sheena M. Joyce, Nick Spicer
Executive producers: Nate Bolotin, Nick Moceri, Aram Tertzakian
Director of photography: Matthew Santo
Production designer: Maggie Ruder
Editor: Demian Fenton
Composers: Brooke Blair, Will Blair