In the remarkable 2003 documentary Capturing the Friedmans, director Andrew Jarecki recounted the shocking crimes committed by members of a seemingly ordinary family living in the suburbs. In his feature film debut All Good Things, Jarecki revisits the same theme through a fictional lens — with far less effective results. Inspired by the bizarre murder trial of Robert Durst, the son of Manhattan real-estate magnate Seymour Durst, the movie opens in 1971, when David (Ryan Gosling) and Katie Marks (Kirsten Dunst), meet, fall in love, get married and move to Vermont to run the eponymous health-food store.
The couple’s life is simple yet happy, until David’s disapproving papa Sanford (Frank Langella), who has been subsidizing their business, visits and orders his son to move back to New York and rejoin the family business. Even though they are forced to go, David and Katie nonetheless thrive in the city, with a posh apartment, a house in the country and a Mercedes Benz. Katie, who hails from a loving, middle-class family, doesn’t really fit in with the Marks’ monied social circles. But her background only makes her more appealing to David, who yearns to escape his moneyed roots. (“She’s never going to be one of us,” Sanford tells his son. “I know. Isn’t that great?” David replies.)
In the first half of All Good Things, as the couple’s marriage blooms and then gradually starts to crumble, the performances by Gosling and Dunst are so strong that they get your hopes up. Gosling is terrific as the husband who adores his wife — you can see the happiness radiating from him — even though he’s clearly harboring demons as yet undefined. Dunst brings light and energy to the picture as a spirited young woman who unconditionally loves her man, until she starts to suspect there is another side to David she’s never glimpsed.
Jarecki knows how to make scenes of boisterous family reunions and quiet moments between lovers engaging: He fares less well, though, when the story takes a dark turn. Eventually, it goes completely off the rails. All Good Things may be based on real events, but just because the story is true doesn’t keep the film from collapsing into unintentionally funny territory. The extremely odd, almost surreal elements of the actual case are probably what drew Jarecki to this material in the first place — this is a pretty outrageous story — but they require an exceptionally careful and subtle treatment to seem believable onscreen. Jarecki’s earnest, direct approach, which worked so well in Capturing the Friedmans when the story took an unexpected turn, backfires in All Good Things, making the sensational seem absurd. You just don’t believe what you’re seeing.
The movie, which covers more than 30 years, also feels incomplete and rushed. The character of Sanford, for example, comes off as inscrutable, a powerful, brazen man played by Langella as a money-grubbing villain — Daddy Dearest. You never come to understand what motivated these people to do what they did: Too many key details are left for you to imagine. I can’t say I was ever bored by All Good Things — I watched the last 20 minutes with my jaw hanging open — but it pulls you in the same way a ridiculous sculpture or piece of art does. You watch it in stunned disbelief, wondering how a movie that started so strongly devolved into something so absurd.
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Kirsten Dunst, Frank Langella, Lily Rabe, Phillip Baker Hall.
Director: Andrew Jarecki.
Screenwriters: Marcus Hinchey, Marc Sperling.
Producers: Bruna Papandrea, Michael London, Marc Sperling, Andrew Jarecki.
A Magnolia Pictures release. Running time: 100 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual situations, nudity, brief violence, drug use, adult themes. Opens Friday Jan. 21 in Miami-Dade: Coral Gables Art Cinema, Intracoastal; in Palm Beach: Living Room