REVIEW: Errol Morris's Tabloid Tells the Sordid Tale of a Love-Crazed Nutter
Errol Morris's Tabloid isn't quite as juicy as its title might lead you to believe, but it does tell a suitably twisted, outlandish tale: In 1977 Joyce McKinney, a North Carolina-born beauty queen who'd been ditched by her Mormon boyfriend -- he "disappeared" because he'd been called on his mission -- trekked to England to snatch him from the clutches of his church.
But she didn't just put on a cute, sexy outfit and pout a lot, as a less creative woman might do. With the help of an accomplice, and armed with chloroform and a fake gun, she kidnapped him and whisked him off to the English countryside, where she tied him to a bed, tore off his weird Mormon underwear and made mad, passionate love to him. Her captive escaped, and shortly thereafter she was arrested by British authorities, becoming a celebrity of sorts in the U.K. Her story was just lewd enough, and her brains just adorably scrambled enough, to make her a sensation in the tabloid press.
It's an amusing enough story, all right, and it adequately fills up Tabloid's 88 minutes -- but a minute longer would have been too much. Morris delights in McKinney's thinly veiled mania -- at one point a British tabloid journalist who covered the story at the time appropriately calls her "barking mad" -- and for the most part he just sits back and turns the camera on, Errol Morris-style, and lets her nuttiness run free. Morris sets McKinney -- now a pleasant-looking, roundish auntie type with a half-cherubic, half-devil-doll glint in her eyes -- against a muted muted grayish background as she jibber-jabbers on about her mission to secure the permanent affections of her one true love, an erstwhile Corvette-driving hunk named Kirk Anderson (who refused to be interviewed for the film).
Things didn't work out, but McKinney kept the flames burning: There's vintage footage of an '80s-era McKinney -- and she was quite the cutie-pie -- wearing a gauzy fairytale dress and reading aloud from her own (unpublished) account of this undying love, called "Once Upon a Time." But McKinney was also, apparently, easily distracted: As the temporary toast of London -- before skipping bail and escaping to the States, with her sidekick, Keith May, disguised as a deaf-mute -- McKinney was trotted out to various parties, where she flirted with the likes of Keith Moon and the Bee Gees. And many years later, circa 2008, after living a somewhat agoraphobic life out in the country, she made headlines again, when she had a beloved dog, a pit bull named Booger, cloned by a South Korean scientist. The result was not one but five puppies, all of whom live with McKinney today.
Weird enough for you yet? Morris allows McKinney to go further and further into the ether as she tells her story. And while the approach isn't exactly cruel -- McKinney is all too eager to grab the spotlight, obviously not realizing she comes off as certifiably bonkers -- it is just a little too coy. Morris jazzes up the story with silly map graphics, and when extra emphasis on certain salacious details is needed, which it usually isn't, he flashes key words and phrases on the screen -- "spread-eagled," for example, which he repeats several times just for the heck of it. Compared with Morris' best and most provocative documentaries, like The Fog of War, Tabloid is just a trifle. It's a silly little thing that goes down easy and is forgotten almost instantly. In the end, Morris doesn't have as tenacious a hold on his subject matter as McKinney does on hers.