Ansel Elgort plays a real-life 1980s investment scammer in a film that’s particularly cringe-worthy in the wake of co-star Kevin Spacey’s multiple sexual misconduct allegations.
James Cox’s last film to grace theaters, 2003’s pretty lousy Wonderland, was a true-story approach to the fall of John Holmes, the porn star whose troubles had already inspired a fictional masterpiece, P.T. Anderson’s Boogie Nights. So there’s a sense of deja vu in his new one, Billionaire Boys Club, a true-crime flick planted deep in the shadow of both Wall Street and Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of same. (The film will open theatrically mid-August, but has been on VOD since July 17.) This 1980s tale of twentysomething rich kids and the strivers who’d do anything to join them — including kill a couple of millionaires to keep their Ponzi scheme afloat — adds nothing to the genre and suffers from two kinds of horrible timing. One is accidental: Cox could not have known that castmember Kevin Spacey would find himself in a scandal that may well make this his last released film (and one with some off-putting real-world overtones). The other is entirely Cox’s failure: Given that the villainy of ’80s greedheads has been dwarfed by later generations of finance felons, indulging in this period piece without finding some fresh critique is, if not morally bankrupt, at least creatively clueless.
Spacey’s Baby Driver co-star Ansel Elgort stars as Joe Hunt, but his story is largely told, in Goodfellas-aping voiceover, by Hunt’s partner Dean Karny (Taron Egerton). Telling us about their modest beginnings, Karny says, “I grew up with parents who were middle class — the opposite of rich.” At which point any viewer who knows the meanings of the words “opposite” and “rich” may wisely decide to jump ship.
As the film tells it, Karny met Hunt at L.A.’s private Harvard School for Boys, where the latter was on a full scholarship. Hunt never fit in with the tycoons’ sons there, but evidently he got along well enough with Karny that, when they met many years later and Hunt seemed to have some lucrative business ideas, Karny arranged to bring him back into the old social circle. “Come to Spago tonight,” he says, knowing that one of their old-money classmates is throwing a costume party there.
At that party, Cox seems to acknowledge how very much his movie owes to Wall Street by dressing up Hunt’s love interest to be, Emma Roberts’ Sydney, as the Blade Runner character played by Charlie Sheen’s Wall Street co-star Daryl Hannah. But Roberts’ part may be even less meaningful than Hannah’s was; they don’t call this movie a boys club for nothing. (Back home, Hunt’s dad is the same kind of principled, salt-of-the-earth Pop that Martin Sheen played alongside his son in 1987.)
Hunt has the genius idea to invest in gold, and the two wind up getting some money to fund this venture. He does well for a short period before his investment crashes, but the men bluff their way through this setback, soon convincing a trio of born-rich idiots to join their investing firm, putting in their own cash but, more importantly, drawing family friends into the pool. Evidently, you can get pretty far by giving a rich kid a way to present himself as a self-made man.
Then there’s Spacey’s Ron Levin, a big shot whose source of wealth is left intentionally vague. We meet him in his mansion as he’s yelling at a freelance photographer — go get that courtroom close-up of John DeLorean as the verdict is announced, he commands, knowing that he can resell the pic to some tabloid for a fortune. Behind Levin is a triptych of the kind of cheesy-fake Warhol portraits you might buy at a frame shop in the mall — which is weird, because, as we’ll soon see, Levin is tight enough with the actual artist (impersonated by Cary Elwes) that he can tease him over drinks about that talentless newcomer named Jean-Michel Basquiat. If all the on-the-nose period references don’t make you squirm, seeing Spacey’s performance of Levin’s coked-up lewdness might: A clip of Spacey barking “Milton Berle has a Love Boat between his legs! Toot toot!” is bound to end up in a supercut of shame before long. (Avert your eyes when Spacey’s character leers at the adolescent-looking Elgort during further talk of salami-sized genitals.)
None of the above should be taken as a suggestion that Billionaire Boys Club is the kind of car wreck that must be witnessed. Rather, it’s a derivative bore, all popped collars, douchey bros and hand-me-down psychology, that gets its characters up to their necks in borrowed money just long enough to have it really hurt when the accounts run dry. The killings that follow have little of the clammy-palms panic required of true-crime thrillers — despite Elgort’s credible performance — and the script leaves itself plenty of cheap back doors against the possibility that its version of events is totally wrong. “Here’s the dirty little secret about being rich,” the movie begins — and then it proceeds to tell us nothing we haven’t all known about money for a very long time.
Production companies: HW Productions, Elevated Films
Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
Cast: Ansel Elgort, Taron Egerton, Kevin Spacey, Emma Roberts, Ryan Rottman, Jeremy Irvine, Thomas Cocquerel, Judd Nelson, Cary Elwes
Director: James Cox
Screenwriters: James Cox, Captain Mauzner
Producers: Cassian Elwes, Christopher Lemole, Holly Wiersma
Executive producers: Michael Bien, Alastair Burlingham, Chad Faust
Director of photography: James M. Muro
Production designer: Franco-Giacomo Carbone
Costume designer: Terry Anderson
Editor: Glen Scantlebury
Composer: Joel J. Richard
Rated R, 108 minutes