'Love Fraud': TV Review | Sundance 2020

Love Fraud - Sundance - SPECIAL EVENTS - Publicity - H 2020
Courtesy of Sundance
Sometimes harrowing, sometimes funny, sometimes inspiring.

Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing's Showtime limited docuseries tells a twisty, expectation-defying story of romance and deceit in the digital age.

If you've ever watched Catfish (the movie or source documentary) or watched or listened to Dirty John (the podcast or TV adaptation), you know exactly what to expect from Showtime's new four-part documentary series Love Fraud.

Until you don't.

And then you don't again.

I'm not sure that Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing's limited series, getting a Sundance Film Festival launch ahead of its May 8 Showtime premiere, quite justifies its full four-hour running time, but if you measure a documentary's effectiveness based on the number of times it makes you go, "Wait... What?!?" or "Seriously?!?" then Love Fraud is a rousing success. It starts off in a lot of places that seem familiar, but every time you become too complacent in your expectations, Love Fraud detours and the resulting series is sad, distressing and filled with enough Midwestern weirdness for a Coen Brothers movie.

"Dating in your 40s sucks," declares Tracy, a Kansas City single mom. "It seems like your only choice is to go online to meet somebody."

Thanks to online dating, Tracy met Richard Scott Smith — at various points interchangeably called "Rick" and "Scott" — and they had a whirlwind romance and prepared to make several major purchases. And then she discovered that her new beau wasn't what he appeared to be. The same thing happened to Ellen. And Sabrina. And Jean. And Rachel. And several Heathers. Richard Scott Smith, it seems, is a serial con man and bigamist, and despite an active blog dedicated to warning women not to fall into his trap, he's been preying on women for 20 years across multiple states and, owing to the legal system's general apathy, he's been very difficult to stop.

As several of the women band together, with the help of tough-talking bounty hunter Carla, to try to catch Smith and bring him down, the filmmakers attempt to tackle bigger-picture questions like: What is Smith getting out of these faux romances? Why are all of these women attracted to him? Why does he keep getting away with it? And what does any of this have to do with a dubious-looking seafood restaurant called Krab Kingz?

Even if it sounds like Dirty John, it's not Dirty John, a story in which the con man was ruggedly handsome and dangerous, his target a wealthy woman ensconced in the hollow glamour of Orange County. Smith is an unremarkable man who spun unremarkable stories and victimized women with very little to steal other than their self-respect and their hope of, nearing midlife, finding love. So what if love was all that Smith wanted? I mean, that's ridiculous. But what if it were? This nebulous reasoning is why Love Fraud feels so easily relatable and yet so consistently head-scratching, because with each relationship comes a different lie, a different challenge of time management and a different riddle for Grady and Ewing to untangle.

The riddle comes with several storytelling challenges that Grady and Ewing (Jesus Camp) meet with variable success.

To lead with the positive, Grady and Ewing face a common roadblock that bedevils many documentarians who focus on "smaller," more personal stories, namely a limited amount of primary footage from the stories being told. If you don't have news footage or home video records, how do you patch together a story? It's here that all too many filmmakers resort to artistically inert reenactments. Grady and Ewing dodge that rarely inspired device through sequences from collage artist Martin O'Neill, animated by Andrew Griffin. The animation captures the story's tone, which is somewhere between "reality through a funhouse mirror" and "fairy tale gone sour" and the directors use the animation to retell stories, evoke mood or just bridge between scenes. It's an all-purpose device and it conveys romance-in-bloom, humor and Edward Gorey-esque darkness with admirable versatility. There were times, especially in the last two installments, when I wish there had been more of it.

The directors' other major challenge is that Love Fraud doesn't exactly have a hero. Smith's marks are given enough voice and interiority that you don't think of them as victims and that's hugely important, but their participation in the series' revenge-driven plot is usually limited, at least as individuals. Grady and Ewing have, instead, allowed them to blend into almost a Greek chorus of wronged women and the directors have slotted themselves, or at least their voices, into that chorus.

Carla the bounty hunter probably ought to be the documentary's hero. She's consistently badass and gives voice to the audience's incredulity at many points, but she's inconsistently involved in the plot herself. Kudos to Grady and Ewing for not cobbling the documentary together to give Carla the illusion of greater jurisdiction or authority, but the perfect version of this story includes a lot more of Carla with a cigarette drooping from her lip and a sawed-off shotgun in her hands than it actually possesses.

Allowing the women to blend into a collective adds to an overall blurriness in the storytelling. I can't tell you the timeframe of anything in Love Fraud and its sense of geography is sometimes similarly amorphous. How much of this is intentional remains unclear, though much of it may be. As twisty and juicy as the story here is, Love Fraud keeps threatening to slip through your fingers, which makes it a bit like Richard Scott Smith, if you're into that sort of mirroring.

Love Fraud still charges along with one eyebrow-raising revelation after another and it's hard to turn off without knowing whether or not Smith will be brought to justice, what justice would even look like for a man with his criminal record and how the filmmakers will actually get to the root of his issues, without giving him the cover of explanation or justification. It's a strange, involving journey.

Directors: Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing

Company: Showtime

Editor: JD Marlow

Illustrator: Martin O'Neill

Animation: Andrew Griffin

Running Time: 200 minutes

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)

Premieres May 8 on Showtime