Synopsis – A group of wealthy boys in Los Angeles during the early 1980s establish a ‘get-rich-quick’ scam that turns deadly.
My Take – It’s a fact of live that one person’s wrong action will always effect the people around him, while I am subtly hinting towards the synopsis of this film, my obvious direction is toward the controversy surrounding Kevin Spacey, whose actions has resulted in a number of projects starring him, being canned, just so the producers can stay away from the #MeToo campaign. Here, Spacey stars in a supporting albeit small but important role, hence slicing him off on the editing table or replacing him (like director Ridley Scott did in All the Money in the World) would not have worked.
But its puzzling to realize that this film, originally filmed two and a half years before these allegations surfaced, has been stuck in cans for probably some other reason. Nevertheless, someone at its distributor Vertical Entertainment‘s office realized that it starred two up and coming stars in the lead, and hence found itself on video-in-demand and a limited theatrical release in the rest of the world, all in the hopes of cashing on Baby Driver‘s Ansel Elgort and Kingsman‘s Taron Egerton growing popularity.
Did it serve the final product? Not really, as the film is just a below average rendering of a remarkable real-life story from the 1980s, and marks itself as the latest in the series of rise and fall of bad people in America films that pop up a couple of times a year, follow the same basic plot, and reach similar conclusions. Here, writer-director James Cox just falls short of creating the right atmosphere and pacing for the film to work, all the while also failing to capitalize on his aces and instead comes up with something just okay, not too engaging nor memorable.
The story follows Dean Karny (Taron Egerton), a tennis pro and a graduate of L.A.’s exclusive all-male Harvard School, who coming from a middle class family has been trying everything possible to get closer to his goal of being rich, that includes selling imported cars to affluent guys his age. However, during one of his deals he runs into his old classmate Joe Hunt (Ansel Elgort), who also studied at the same school on a scholarship, but due to his poor background found himself always at odds with his rich schoolmates, and is now working in an investment company, struggling to make ends meet.
Confident about Hunt’s knack for commodity trading, Karny re-introduces him to their former classmates who are also known as the children of Beverly Hills royalty (Ryan Rottman, Jeremy Irvine, Barney Harris and Thomas Cocquerel). Fancying themselves as the next Steve Jobs, Karny and Hunt begin luring gullible and moneyed white dudes to invest in gold, with a promise of a 50 percent return, even when the reality is less than favorable for their stocks. But as soon as Ron Levin (Kevin Spacey), a hotshot entrepreneur, shows interest in the operation, their company, the B.B.C, becomes an overnight success, with investors from all sides pouring in. With their girlfriends (Emma Roberts and Suki Waterhouse) at their side, Dean and Joe turn themselves into monarchs of their own destiny, until one revelation brings everything crashing down.
There is an interesting story here, with the right actors, but director James Cox just doesn’t sell it right. Incidentally, this isn’t exactly the first time his story has become the subject of a film, as back in 1987, a similarly titled miniseries directed by Marvin Chomsky tackled the same events. However, director Cox’s take, despite set in the 80s, felt like it is made for the present, in an age where people are rushing to become rich, lapping whatever scheme, whether it be bit coin or other complex financial instruments, as long as the profits are fast and plenty. The film you right at the beginning, with its compelling talk of gold, and presentation of the allure of money, along with the allure of Southern California. We see how Hunt and Karny go to a nightclub that, from their eyes, looks like a fantasy land of sex and personal arrival, and from the moment they begin to make money, they replicate this vision in lavish, frenetic parties.
Here, screenwriters Cox and Captain Mauzner cleverly establish the essence of conning, i.e. Perception, and from there, they construct the tricky and mesmerizing mechanisms of a Ponzi scheme, the growing amount of money blinding you as much as Karney and Hunt’s victims, and you both dread and look forward to the BBC’s downfall. Sadly and strangely, once the second act kicks in it all doesn’t really amount to anything enticing, inspiring or exciting. It is eager but is weirdly tepid. It lacks a certain energy to go for the lofty themes it aims for. It started out promising but ends up being a work of diminishing returns, where every step it takes towards its predictable outcome results in further limpness and confusion in motive.
Director James Cox, whose sparse filmography include testosterone-driven Straight A’s (starring Luke Wilson and Anna Paquin) and the crime drama Wonderland (with Val Kilmer), renders his latest fare as a pureed mash-up of ‘The Wolf of Wall Street,’ ‘The Social Network’ and last week’s brilliant indie heist film ‘American Animals’, but without the richness or texture of any of those films and unjust snappy editing. The film focuses on both the power and recklessness of youth, yet it is stilted, closely devoid of the vibrancy and verve to make it work.
It has all the ingredients but everything is half-baked, and just riddled with so many distractions. There are hints of romance but it only diverts the film from its darker directions. Director Cox has a trouble in concentrating his ideas, and the result is something sorely lacking in focus that none of its aims are fulfilled, especially with a narrator is that just not credible because of lot of the scenes feature Joe in private moments with other people (such as his girlfriend) with Dean nowhere in sight.
The biggest problem with the film is that the characters are not fleshed out enough, and you can’t really understand their motivations for doing what they did. They all appear either stock or nonexistent and have nothing interesting to offer us, and the dialogue is flat, non-engaging, probably one of the reasons the characters are so dull. The various relationships have no life to them, and it gets to the point where you begin to dread any time someone talks. And for some reason every character speaks in grand statements full of pseudo-insightful ideas about the self-made man and the nature of success. Director Cox also doesn’t do a great job of getting across Hunt’s brilliant concept or how he’s able to convince anyone else to buy into it. But soon the film is running a disarmingly straightforward Ponzi scheme, using funds from new investors to pay off old ones and support a lifestyle of sex, drugs, Mulholland Drive condos and Armani suits.
Worse, according to the film, Hunt and Karny never intended, at least initially, to be crooks — especially not Hunt. But bad decisions involving thousands led to more bad decisions involving tens of thousands. Yet why, if Hunt was so concerned with his investors’ money and really did intend to set things right, did he keep buying cars and Armani suits? Why did he rent an enormous house? Elgort plays Hunt as a decent person getting swept up in a storm, but most of the storm was of his own making. Something here doesn’t make sense. At its best, the film is a second-rate version of The Wolf of Wall Street, but there’s one key difference, director Scorsese never expected us to empathize with Leonardo DiCaprio‘s Jordan Belfort, and pulled no punches while depicting his exploits, director Cox, meanwhile, wants us to care about Hunt and Karny even as they get involved in murder.
Also the unexpectedly violent twists of fate that happened to Hunt and Karny prior to the conclusion was so far out of this world, it was actually so hard to believe that those additional crimes actually happened in real life. It felt like bad writing while I was watching it, only to find out when researching about the events afterwards that these actually did happen for real.
It’s upsetting to see two of the up-and-coming young leading men in Hollywood today be so underutilized, yet they manage to leave a mark. While Elgort is competent and likable as always, its Egerton gives the most memorable performance here, nailing that American accent with almost zero effort. Emma Roberts, as an aspiring artist and the only female character with more than a couple speaking lines, is particularly wasted, so are the other two girls, Billie Lourd and Suki Waterhouse. Ryan Rottman, Jeremy Irvine, Barney Harris and Thomas Cocquerel as other members of the Club, are alright, while Bokeem Woodbine manages to sail through.
Judd Nelson, who played Joe Hunt in the miniseriesc, too appears here as Joe’s worried father. And how is Kevin Spacey, by the way? As expected, he dominates every moment of every scene in which he appears. He’s in relatively few scenes, but every time his character appears, he is just so delightful to hate. On the whole, ‘Billionaire Boys Club‘ is a hollow and generic rise-and-fall film that is led down by its standard plot and bland direction.
Directed – James Cox
Rated – R
Run Time – 108 minutes