PLOT A documentary-narrative hybrid on the rise and fall of automaker John DeLorean.
CAST Alec Baldwin, Morena Baccarin, Josh Charles
PLAYING AT IFC Center in Manhattan and on video-on-demand.
BOTTOM LINE An uneven blend of fact and fiction.
In the 1970s, John DeLorean became one of the few business executives famous enough to grace the pages of celebrity magazines. A flashy figure at General Motors — he helped usher in the muscle-car era with the Pontiac GTO — DeLorean stunned the auto world by launching his own DeLorean Motor Company and creating the car of his dreams: A stainless-steel coupe with distinctive gull-wing doors. An even bigger stunner came in 1982, when DeLorean was arrested for cocaine trafficking in what looked like a desperate attempt to pump money into his failing company.
The title of “Framing John DeLorean” refers both to the federal authorities’ dubious sting operation against him, and to the filmmakers’ attempt to paint a picture of an enigmatic subject. In this blend of documentary and fiction, Alec Baldwin stars as the visionary automaker who succumbed to the excesses of his era.
Since DeLorean’s spectacular fall, numerous producers have tried and failed to bring his story to the screen. Directors Sheena M. Joyce and Don Argott (“The Art of the Steal”) are among the very few to bring a film to fruition. What exactly their film is, though, remains a question.
In its bones, “Framing John DeLorean” is a traditional documentary. It transports us back to a car-crazy decade where DeLorean, with his open-collared shirts and starlet arm-candy, fashioned himself into the Hugh Hefner of the automotive industry. His namesake car — a dazzling objet d’art that looked like a sexy space-shuttle — generated the kind of excitement that would greet Apple’s products years later.
It’s still fascinating to watch the car’s failure unfold. There were little problems, like malfunctioning windshield wipers, and much bigger problems, like poor handling. One lesser-remembered detail is that DeLorean based his factory in Belfast, a city willing to offer generous incentives in exchange for jobs, but with no tradition of automaking. In fresh interviews, DeLorean’s Irish employees still strike notes of pride, gratitude and sorrow over their experience
Occasionally, “Framing John DeLorean” shifts gears and adopts the staged, scripted tone of a biopic. Baldwin, with jet-black eyebrows and a false chin, is a dead ringer for DeLorean; Morena Baccarin plays his wife, supermodel Cristina Ferrare; and Josh Charles is quite compelling as the loyal engineer Bill Collins. Nevertheless, these scenes are really just elaborate re-enactments that distract us and stop the flow of information. Even less welcome are several “meta” moments in which Baldwin pontificates about the man he’s playing.
DeLorean might have completely vanished from the public’s rearview mirror had his car not appeared in “Back to the Future,” Robert Zemeckis’ smash hit from the summer of 1985. Cast as a homemade time machine that transports a modern teenager (Michael J. Fox) back to the 1950s, the DeLorean was perfect in the role: A discarded piece of futurist sculpture, gleaming with irony.
DeLorean, thoroughly disgraced but still hoping to some day reclaim his title as king of the auto world, sent the “Back to the Future” filmmakers a letter of gratitude for the product-placement. “Thank you,” he wrote, “for keeping my dream alive in such a positive fashion."