Film Review: Tabloid

Oscar-winning documentary maverick Errol Morris stays quirky and goes trashy with this profile of a former sex-for-hire Southern blonde bombshell whose wacko escapades create a feeding frenzy in the Brit tabloids. Style here surpasses content, but ther

Viewers will be forgiven for feeling a little dirty after watching Tabloid, Errol Morris’ lively mixed-media evocation of the highly questionable and maybe too voluble Joyce McKinney, a self-described small-town North Carolina gal, who, as a self-described innocent many decades back, set off for Utah to find romance and eventually got a whole lot more on two continents, including status as irresistible British tabloid bait.

Many of McKinney’s details and self-descriptions ring as self-serving, even self-invented. But, no matter. Morris (Mr. Death, The Thin Blue Line, Gates of Heaven, the sublime Oscar-winner The Fog of War) tackles yet another eccentric subject with panache. With Tabloid, he employs camera-friendly talking heads, clever animation, vintage movie clips to depict story elements, and archival news footage which adds much-needed heft.

The documentary follows McKinney, dominant blabbing head here, who lands in Utah as a teen, befriends a wild girl who is her opposite (really?) and, while driving in her Corvette, locks eyes movie-style with Kirk, the guy with gorgeous orbs she is determined to marry. It’s 1977 and, just before they tie the knot, Kirk vanishes. McKinney traces him to the U.K., where apparently he’s been entrapped by Mormons missionaries intent on keeping him chaste.

But McKinney is just as intent on stealing his virginity and making him her husband. (Tabloid reveals her as one hard-headed gal.) She and a sidekick, with help from pilot Jackson Shaw and bodyguards they hire, kidnap Kirk and get him to a dreamlike cottage in Devon where he and McKinney apparently have three days of blissful sex and become engaged. Shaw shares how he was drawn to such risqué work by McKinney, who screamed availability with her “see-through” garb.

Kirk ends up back in the hands of Mormons and says he was kidnapped, and after Scotland Yard pounces, McKinney is arrested. Another talking head, Troy Williams, a former Mormon, provides background on the cult’s missionary zeal.

There’s a court and tabloid battle, as the Daily Express and Daily Mirror fight for coverage. The seemingly posh Peter Tory, who was the Express reporter, figures here as a prominent talking head, as does Cockney Kent Gavin, a Mirror photographer who ended up with hundreds of salacious photos and documents stolen from McKinney’s home by an ex-boyfriend.

McKinney skips bail, escapes by way of elaborate disguises and feigning deafness. In hiding (where she remains), she reunites with her true loves—her dogs. One, a giant mastiff, mauls her terribly, the result, she claims, of an incorrect drug prescription. When a smaller beloved pet dies, she has the animal successfully cloned by Korean scientist Dr. Hong and cares for the adorable offspring.

McKinney is the doc’s glue, but, paradoxically, Tabloid’s only problem begins and ends with her. She just isn’t credible and leaves gaping holes in her story. Among the many: Why does this Southern, romantically inclined teen hick earmark Utah as her destination? (Is she a closeted Mormon groupie?) And how, never using credit cards, did she accumulate so much cash? Besides the huge early expenditures of buying that Corvette, hiring a private pilot and bringing a whole retinue to the U.K. where she also rented a dream Devon cottage for quite a period of time, there’s that dog-cloning adventure that required several hundreds of thousands of dollars. Is providing sex for money that lucrative? And is McKinney, a self-described agoraphobic, even sane?

So many documentaries admirably serve up protagonists and missions that signal hope for our messy world. With Tabloid, Morris will have none of that, preferring to give viewers something else they need—a world much crazier than their own.