Described as “the greatest literary hoax of our time,” the infamous unmasking of cause célèbre persona/author JT LeRoy in 2005 turned the world of pop culture media upside down. An extraordinary story that made headlines around the globe, the tale in short is: a precocious, sexually ambiguous, then-famous teenage author (LeRoy) — purporting to come from a world of drug addiction, poverty, and sexual abuse — was revealed to be the creation of another writer, a fraud upheld by an actor playing the press-shy persona in public, with her musician/boyfriend as a co-conspirator.
Sucking dozens of duped celebrities into the narrative who had befriended and championed LeRoy’s work over the years (Asia Argento, Billy Corgan, Courtney Love, Bono, Michael Pitt, Marilyn Manson, etc.), this captivating swindle has been an endless source of fascination for those absorbed by fabulists and fakers. Dozens of books and documentaries on the subject have been created over the years (most notably “The Cult Of JT LeRoy” and the more well-known “Author: The Story of JT LeRoy”), so, naturally, “Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy,” Hollywood’s version of the story with brand-name actors in tow, is finally here. And arguably a few years too late and with nothing of value to add.
It’s now a widely-known fantastical deceit, but director Justin Kelly‘s (“King Cobra“) “Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy,” brings two formidable actresses together to try and tell a compelling dramatic-feature version of this intriguing true tale of deceptions, self-delusion, role-playing, sociopathic ambition, and lies that are so deep, one begins to fall for them themselves. It sounds great on paper, but in practice, it’s rather pedestrian and uninvolving.
In the movie, which hews close to the real events, Laura Albert (Laura Dern) wrote the novel “Sarah” under the pseudonym JT LeRoy (T standing for “Terminator”). Laura, who posed as JT’s omnipresent manager/handler, claimed the young author was an androgynous teenage boy from West Virginia who lived a dangerous life as a truck stop sex worker. Laura, at least 20 years older than JT, was a Brooklyn-born musician that dreamt of fortune and fame. The fact that her novel became a New York Times best-seller fueled her ambitions of celebrity and led to the writing of two more books under the JT pseudonym. Eventually, fans demanded to see JT in person, and so, trying to dissuade the growing suspicions from readers and media alike, Laura hired her musician husband’s (Jim Sturgess) sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop (Kristen Stewart) to wear a wig, don big sunglasses, spur a southern accent, and play JT in public.
Addicted to the pretense of playing someone else, Savannah gets sucked into the ruse, albeit at the expense of the attention-seeking Laura’s increasingly crazy behavior, which includes wild outbursts of jealousy due to her public counterpart receiving all the media attention and fame she craved. Although she starts dating a guy back home, Savannah falls for Eva (Diane Kruger), an actress, based on actress/filmmaker Asia Argento, who got duped by the LeRoy persona in real-life and even made a full-blown movie based on one of the fraudulent books (“The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things”). But it’s always unclear whether Savannah actually has an attraction for Eva or if it’s all part of the character she is playing to fool her victims.
When dealing with the gender fluidity that confronted Savannah while she was posing as JT, “Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy” is tame in its exploration. After all, Knoop’s situation was fascinating: here is a bisexual woman who played a man whose sexual personality was complex, to say the least. These ideas could have made for an excellent treatise on the nature of identity, but Kelly plays it too straight, employing a flat, uneventful style that never engages the viewer or gives any meaningful insight to the various conflicted, complex psychologies within the story.
It may seem like Dern, playing the unbalanced, pathological Albert is overacting, but if you’ve seen the various documentaries, you know she gives an accurate portrayal of Laura’s quirk-heavy personality. Stewart, on the other hand, already a little inscrutable herself (in the best way possible), doesn’t need to stretch out all that much to play JT’s subdued manner. Keeping it shy and mysterious, JT was always trying to underplay the part, a tactic that Stewart goes for herself. They’re both playful and engaging to watch.
Unfortunately for “Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy,” this alluring story is given a rather standard treatment from director Kelly. Feeling stilted and steeped in uninspired biopic tropes, Kelly’s film never comes close to an inventiveness worthy of JT’s imaginative, outrageous story. “Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy” barely justifies its existence, and if you already know the basics of this tall tale, it’s not at all exciting to watch. Is there even a need for JT’s story to be told as a feature-length film when we’ve already received several definitive, far-superior depictions via documentary? Truthfully, this story of performative duplicity, masks, and the distressed psychologies behind those building such wildly ingenious schemes and personifications still feels like rich territory to explore. Regrettably for audiences fixated on the JT LeRoy story, “Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy” just can’t convincingly play the part. [C-]