By Ezra Stead

Tabloid, USA, 2010

Directed by Errol Morris

Tabloid, though it is a documentary, is also one of the funniest films of the year. Anyone reading this, and certainly any student of comedy, is sure to be aware of the well-worn axiom, “It’s funny because it’s true.” Regardless of exactly what parts of its wild, often unbelievable story are actually true, in the most objective and unquestionable sense, legendary documentary filmmaker Errol Morris’s latest, Tabloid, is likely one of the funniest films I’ll see all year. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the assertion of its dubious protagonist that it was nothing less than “Christ-like love” that led her pit bull, Booger, to save her life at one point; equally hilarious is Joyce’s proclamation about the tabloid media, “If you tell a lie long enough, you learn to believe it,” uttered without any apparent awareness of the irony inherent in that statement being delivered by someone of her pedigree.

I’m getting ahead of myself. For those who don’t know, Tabloid tells the story of Joyce McKinney, a former beauty pageant queen and Miss Wyoming who allegedly kidnapped and raped a Mormon missionary named Kirk Anderson in 1977, after following him across the globe from California to England, where she believed the Mormons had brainwashed and enslaved him. The tabloids of the time, particularly the competing British Daily Mirror and Daily Express, had the proverbial field day with the story, dubbing it “The Case of the Manacled Mormon!” 

Throughout the original case, as well as the film, Joyce insists that she has been wrongly vilified, and that her actions were motivated solely by a pure, undying love for Kirk, who unsurprisingly refused to be interviewed for the film. She also makes the rather strong case that the sex she and Kirk had, manacled or not, was consensual, saying that a woman physically raping a man is “like trying to stuff a marshmallow into a parking meter.” Joyce maintains her claims of innocence and victimization throughout the case, which quickly snowballs into a media circus of salaciousness and drooling headlines when Joyce’s history as a call girl and nude model come to light in photographs that Joyce swears have been doctored, and whose negatives have mysteriously disappeared.

Though Morris is clearly interested in the way in which the truth is distorted and manipulated, a subject he brilliantly explored in The Thin Blue Line (1988), Tabloid is more a character study of Joyce herself, along the lines of Morris’s Oscar-winning portrait of Robert S. McNamara, The Fog of War (2003). As he did with McNamara in that film, Morris wisely lets Joyce tell her own story without any ironic commentary, allowing the viewpoints of a few others, including reporters from each of the aforementioned competing British tabloids, to alternately complement and dispute her claims. What emerges is a fascinating, enigmatic and surprisingly endearing figure whose story, strange and absurd as it certainly is, points to something very common to the human condition: our magnificent ability to delude ourselves in order to make life bearable. I often found myself reminded of last year’s amazing documentary Catfish and the incredible character from which it got its title; I will say no more about that for fear of spoiling its wonderful surprises, but if you haven’t done so yet, see Catfish!

Joyce herself famously attended the New York premiere of Tabloid in order to protest its inclusion of some of the claims she finds blatantly false, but the film itself never portrays Joyce as the lunatic the tabloids, and some of the other interview subjects proclaim her to be; instead, it is a perfect illustration of that broad middle ground between wildly divergent viewpoints in which the truth may, through great effort, eventually be found. Morris seems to be less interested in finding that inarguable, objective truth of what really happened in the famous “Manacled Mormon” case than he is in showing the truth of one Joyce McKinney, a unique individual who defies the easy categorizations in which the tabloids of the world traffic. We each live our own truths, and the various, often conflicting ones presented in Tabloid are funny as hell, and consummately entertaining.

Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’ Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper and poet who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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