Beware the passion project of the unrestrained actor. Georgetown, Christoph Waltz’s directorial debut, is a missed opportunity of epic proportions. This is a film about a mysterious, charming man who seduces a wealthy older woman and insinuates himself into the Washington elite. It is a film where that same older woman dies under circumstances that even the most charitable observer would describe as dodgy. And perhaps most importantly, this is a film that stars Christoph Waltz, Annette Bening, and Vanessa Redgrave, actors who have 12 Oscar nominations and 3 wins between them. So how on earth is it so supernaturally dull?

Essentially, Ulrich Mott (Waltz) manipulates Elsa Brecht (Redgrave) into a romantic relationship, despite being at least two decades her junior. With this relationship comes a grand house in Georgetown, a position amongst the upper echelons of DC society, a cushy job in the diplomatic sphere, and an incredibly suspicious stepdaughter (Bening) who doubts every aspect of his relationship with her mother. (As in all things, Annette Bening is right, but that’s neither here nor there.)

There is something inescapably shady about Ulrich — he seems to have come out of nowhere to serve as a charming suitor for Elsa, and his past is an almost complete unknown. At no point in the film can we be confident that he is telling the truth, or if he’s just weaving an increasingly convoluted web of lies. And when his back is against the wall, his fabrications become ever more grandiose and desperate. Who is this man, and how did he ever manage to worm his way into such a prestigious position?

More importantly, do we still even care?

It feels ridiculous to say this, knowing how inhumanly charismatic Christoph Waltz has been in past roles even when he’s playing the villain, but he isn’t charming enough here. There’s something irritatingly unctuous about Waltz as Ulrich which immediately removes any doubt about whether or not he’s a disreputable character, a slimily ingratiating air to his interactions with Elsa that are tremendously unappealing. There’s no ambiguity surrounding his character and his choices, so any mystery about his intentions is ineffective. This film gave us a weasel when what it needed was a fox: cunning, charming, and dangerous.

What’s surprising is that we know from basically every single one of Waltz’s past performances that he’s uniquely capable of playing that role, but for whatever reason it doesn’t come through here. He and Redgrave have a few tantalizing arguments that showcase their talents, but they’re few and far between, and the film is hamstrung by the fact that Redgrave’s character spends the majority of it dead. In fact, Georgetown likely would have been a great deal more enjoyable if we had spent more time exploring this truly bizarre courtship rather than investigating Elsa’s death and trying to get to the bottom of Ulrich’s character, who is dishonest but not necessarily engaging.

The true injustice is Annette Bening’s place in this film. How can you justify bringing such a wonderful actress into your film and giving her so little to work with? She does her best with what she has, but there’s not very much for her to sink her teeth into. Overall, that’s how the entire film feels: like a waste of potential. There are undeniably great actors in Georgetown, and a story that in all fairness should be fascinating, but the film squanders them, which is the biggest crime of all.

Rating: ★★