The rabbit hole of identity, deception and authorial truth that swirled around the J.T. LeRoy hoax — a woman inventing a young, male ex-prostitute author of autobiographical fiction, played in public by a second woman — is thorny enough that one can imagine a variety of adaptations. There’s material for everything from an old-school Blake Edwards-style masquerade comedy about Hollywood to a caustic modern Jill Soloway episodic about gender to some lush, loopy Luca Guadagnino collaboration with Tilda Swinton playing all roles.
But instead, the dramatization gods left us the inert, thin “J.T. LeRoy” from director/co-writer Justin Kelly (“I Am Michael”), who in adapting the memoir of in-person J.T. portrayer Savannah Knoop — sister-in-law to the hoax’s mastermind Laura Albert — pretty much ended any commitment to telling the story memorably once he secured his two inspired leads.
Simply put, if Albert hadn’t created J.T., someone would have had to invent Albert and Knoop just so Laura Dern and Kristen Stewart could play them, respectively. They’re a magnetic pair of unlikely co-conspirators — the mad scientist and her coaxable charge — and they each bring to bear their careers’ worth of awkward outsiders so that this otherwise blasé rehash of the tale’s particulars at least simmers with performance brio.
In 2001, J.T. was already a publishing phenomenon when Knoop — green-haired, open-eyed, rootless — arrived in San Francisco to crash with musician brother Geoff (Jim Sturgess) and his larger-than-life band mate wife Laura (Dern). Knoop discovers a third roommate when she learns that Albert invented the J.T. persona, writing his bestselling tales of abuse and empowerment, and using an exaggerated Southern accent to play him on the phone with journalists and celebrity callers.
Albert convinces Knoop that the latter’s androgynous looks would be perfect for when J.T. needs to appear at photo shoots, readings and parties. With Knoop in a cheap blond wig, sunglasses and oversized clothes, and Albert in tow as J.T.’s aggressive British handler “Speedie,” the duo keep J.T. alive, visiting famous fans like Courtney Love (who good-naturedly plays her once-duped self), and eventually entering a mutually manipulative dance with charismatic artist Eva (Diane Kruger), who’s attracted to both J.T. and the film rights. (The initiated will recognize that she’s a fictionalization of Asia Argento, who directed and starred in an adaptation of “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things.”)
Between the details involved in maintaining a monumental ruse and the emotional pitfalls of role-playing, “J.T. LeRoy” should be more captivating than it is. But Kelly, slave to music cues, feeble visuals and surface dialogue, strains to hold our attention as this tenuous partnership buckles under the assaultive ambition of Albert and identity-blurring romantic trials of Knoop.
When we can latch onto the portrayals offered by Dern, Stewart and Kruger, however, the movie has a nervy peekaboo spirit. Dern’s chattery obnoxiousness is a trip — she nails Albert’s neediness and salesmanship, how she both loved J.T.’s appeal and feared it getting away from her when Knoop’s contribution worked its own magic. Stewart feeds off the chance to quietly react, appealingly capturing the slow churn in someone awakened by the possibilities, and limitations, in pretending to be another — although the inclusion of a sometime boyfriend (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) feels wedged in, merely an excuse to contrast Knoop’s infatuation with Eva, whom the oft-underrated Kruger plays with an engrossing mix of sexuality and canniness.
As the film shifts from movie-set tension to Cannes glitz to the eventual exposure of the fraud, there’s a clumsy shift away from the fallout’s natural drama to ham-fisted sympathy for its perpetrators, as if it was all a tidy experiment in identity politics and not a lucrative, delirious sham with infinite shadings. This might have something to do with Knoop’s involvement as a co-screenwriter and executive producer. But where Dern and Stewart kick-start something worth exploring, the movie around them is pleased spectator instead of engaged participant.
Rated: R, for language throughout, sexual content, and some nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes