Why hasn’t there been a biopic of John DeLorean, whose life, as his son Zachary says in the documentary Framing John DeLorean, has all the elements for a rip-snorter: “It’s got cocaine, hot chicks, sports cars, bombed-out buildings, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, FBI agents, hardcore drug dealers. . . .” In her sixth and final dispatch from Tribeca, Claire Baiz wonders too. Read on for her sharp analysis of this worthy, if not altogether successful, doc.
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When it comes to framing John DeLorean, everyone grabs a miter saw.
The FBI constructs charges against the guy in a convoluted cocaine deal. Directors Sheena Joyce and Don Argott (The Art of the Steal) capture him on film. Inevitably, DeLorean sets himself up as the star of his own tragedy.
DeLorean, perhaps most remembered for designing the time-machine car in the Back to the Future movie franchise, was an egotistical automotive engineer with a volatile temperament and a self-destructive streak.
Framing John DeLorean, a self-described “doc-narrative hybrid,” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, is actually three movies packed into 109 minutes. It’s part documentary, part biopic, and part preloaded commentary – aimed at Hollywood heads.
The documentary portion of the film follows the charismatic auto designer as he transforms from a dark-suited auto executive to a rugged-profile playboy, thanks, in part, to plastic surgery that included a chin implant. DeLorean, a wunderkind at Packard, was recruited by General Motors. GM offered the young auto designer his choice of divisions. DeLorean, hungry for a challenge, chose Pontiac.
DeLorean redesigned Pontiac’s boring mid-size Tempest to include the option of a powerful big-block engine. DeLorean called his new model the “Gran Turismo Omologato.”
The GTO muscle car revved up Pontiac – until DeLorean, who refused to conform to corporate expectations, blew GM’s pistons.
A shameless self-promoter, DeLorean turned his ouster from General Motors into a public relations victory. He parlayed his notorious ouster from GM into a near-impossible feat: he started a brand-new car company.
The documentary follows DeLorean’s struggle to ramp up his car factory, and his desperate attempt to keep it from going under. In a setup straight out of Better Call Saul, the FBI, knowing the fate of DeLorean Motorcar Company was on the line, coaxed DeLorean into trying to make a quick profit on a cocaine deal. You can practically hear the FBI’s slurpy drool at the prospect of trapping DeLorean.
One wriggly escape from a convoluted scheme was not enough. Framing John DeLorean retells the less-known – but no less entertaining – fraud to follow.
The narrative portion of Argott and Joyce’s film, written by Dan Greeney and Alexandra Orton, features Alec Baldwin in reenactments as John DeLorean. Baldwin is, predictably, both asset and liability. He’s definitely the star of a very spiffy trailer).
Baldwin is alternately effective, distracting, and a little embarrassing (in a retro suit, boot-black hair, and artificial dark eyebrows, as a young DeLorean, puh-leeease).
The third part of Framing John DeLorean is commentary. That’s where things get dicey. Baldwin doesn’t just play DeLorean – he intermittently reflects on DeLorean’s perspective, trials, and challenges, saying things like, “The drama is in (DeLorean) being centered while everything around him collapses.”
Baldwin ruminates as makeup and appliances are applied to his face. Relaxed and confident, he riffs about his own life, his brief contact with DeLorean, his own younger wife, stage directions. . . .
Baldwin doesn’t technically “break the fourth wall.” He lectures about the bricks.
Family, former coworkers, and filmmakers offer plenty of commentary, including speculation about failed attempts to make a Hollywood movie about DeLorean’s life.
Now middle-aged, Delorean’s son Zachary circumambulates one of his father’s cars like it’s the Kaaba. Later, in his grimy, mattress-on-the-floor apartment, Zachary wonders why there’s no movie: “It’s got cocaine, hot chicks, sports cars, bombed-out buildings, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, FBI agents, hardcore drug dealers. . . .”
Zachary DeLorean, whose dun eyes match his sweater and beard, is the film’s most engaging character. While some of Alec Baldwin’s reenactments entertain, and documentary footage informs, Zachary is openly vulnerable and somewhat ruined.
Besides, Zachary DeLorean is right. This story screams for Hollywood. Its calling card? Framing John DeLorean.
A decade ago, at least four DeLorean projects percolated around the motion picture industry. According to Vulture magazine, one movie idea had been endorsed by DeLorean’s daughter Kathryn, who’s interviewed as an adult for this documentary. Another potential film involved Zachary. Two more projects, involving director Brett Ratner and producer David Permut, picked up buzz in 2010.
Three talking heads are identified, respectively, as a “Writer of an Unproduced DeLorean Film,” “Writer of an Unproduced DeLorean Film,” and “Yet Another Writer of Yet Another Unproduced DeLorean Film.”
Framing John DeLorean pays a little too much attention to Hollywood’s benign neglect of a potential biopic blockbuster. It’s like watching the evening rise on the Clark Fork.
If Framing John DeLorean had stuck to the juicy story of DeLorean’s life – the tragic transformation of a lanky, weak-chinned auto engineer with bold ideas to a desperate embezzling promoter, it might have kept me engaged. Though a “doc-narrative hybrid” is an interesting idea, it’s hard to be pulled by the story, poke at it, and make a not-so-subtle pitch at the same time.
Framing John DeLorean frames its team as the go-to crew for a John DeLorean narrative film.
That may be true. Though Framing John DeLorean has several producers –including Argott and Joyce –coproducer Tamir Ardon appears to be the catalyst. Ardon, who is also featured onscreen, runs a website described as the “ultimate DeLorean resource on the net.” Ardon, who owns a DeLorean car, is also listed in the press materials as being “in the running to produce an as-yet-unmade DeLorean feature narrative film.”
Framing John DeLorean may have some competition, both as a stand-alone documentary and as a pitch: Originally released in 2014, IMDB’s website shows DeLorean – Living the Dream is back in “post production.” Written and directed by digital imaging expert and budding producer/editor Jordan Livingston (Ant Man, Man in the High Castle), DeLorean –Living the Dream also boasts an extensive cast of original characters– including DeLorean’s daughter Kathryn. “The Dream” does not include Zachary.
John DeLorean, whose car company slogan was “Live the Dream,” liberally shared his nightmare when it all came crashing down. His shocked family suffered, his once-trusted chief engineer suffered, workers at his Northern Ireland auto plant suffered, his customers suffered.
DeLorean himself sparkles, schemes and then suffers, a three-act arc that’s always popular with moviegoing audiences.
Filmmakers Argott and Joyce and producer Ardon deserve credit for gathering and organizing the elements that made a decent (but distracting) documentary – and the bones of a boffo, big-budget biopic.