Bloggers and critics have heralded Errol Morris’s Tabloid as Morris’s return to oddball, character-driven stories (see Gates of Heaven or Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control) after a stint in the world of serious subjects (see The Fog of War, Standard Operating Procedure, or my personal, earlier favorite, The Thin Blue Line). Morris himself said, “It’s a return to my favorite genre—sick, sad, and funny.”
Having screened at festivals over the past year and opened in theaters July 15, Tabloid tells the story of an American beauty queen who went to England in 1977 in search of her Mormon boyfriend, whom she had planned to marry before he disappeared. The ensuing adventure involves kidnapping, handcuffs, sex, brainwashing, jail, fame, and incognito escapes—followed several decades later by a dog mauling, dog cloning, and a mysterious robbery from the former Miss Wyoming’s truck.
True to his talent, Morris plays up the humor in an already absurd story by using well-placed stock footage, quirky graphics, and close-ups of the material record left behind after the so-called “manacled Mormon” case took over the British tabloids. He juxtaposes interviews in his characteristically unsettling way—one that highlights the discrepancies between people’s stories and makes you wonder whether there is such a thing as an objective truth.
And yet, something nagged me the entire time: I was interested in the story, and I was amused by its tellers; however, I just couldn’t bring myself to care.
The problem lies with McKinney. Sure, her story is bizarre, and she’s probably a bit deluded, but she is also a recognizable type: the attention seeker. Whether she meant to end up in the tabloids or not, she courted some of the media attention that was heaped upon her, and that is the old and familiar narrative of the B-list celebrity.
Rather than challenging or questioning the inanity of such a phenomenon, Morris revels in it, which was probably what he wanted to do. But for a filmmaker whose work has managed to break ground—by coaxing Robert McNamara, for instance, into surprising honesty or getting a murderer to confess his crime—the end result here is a little disappointing.
Morris requested an interview with the manacled Mormon himself, Kirk Anderson, but Anderson declined. The film’s other two primary subjects are reporters who investigated the scandal for different tabloid papers in the ’70s. Although they question the truthfulness of McKinney’s narrative, they also come across as kind of sleazy. The result is a movie that struggles with pathos and, at times, feels overly indulgent of McKinney.
People who run pet cemeteries in California or live out their lives in a small swamp town in Florida are compelling not just because they’re eccentric but also because they’re obscure. There’s a dignity to their very personal and private oddness. Their appearance in Morris’s films may be the first time they shared their stories with the so-called media. Joyce McKinney, on the other hand, rose to tabloid stardom in the late 1970s and again thirty years later. (In 2008 she paid Korean scientists to clone her dog—they made five puppies.) She’s had her fifteen minutes; what I can’t figure out is why Morris felt the need to put her in the spotlight once more.