'Shadow Billionaire'

"Shadow Billionaire" should have healthy ancillary life after a bright beginning on the festival circuit.

Money, mystery and sex have never been known as crowd repellents, and if human nature is any indicator, “Shadow Billionaire” should have healthy ancillary life after a bright beginning on the festival circuit. Given the times and state of the nonfiction market, theatrical might get a bypass in favor of broadcast, as the film’s blend of investigation and sensation would be a perfect fit for upscale cable outlets internationally.

Helmer Alexis Manya Spraic deploys healthy doses of archival footage, ominous music and a delicate finger on the narrative trigger (as in what to tell us and when) in exploring the mysterious disappearance of DHL founder Larry Hillblom, whose small plane went down off the Pacific island of Saipan in 1995; his body was never recovered.

The bearded, bespectacled, beady-eyed billionaire — who wears a deer-in-the-headlights look in virtually every photo we see — “cut a swath” through the brothels of Southeast Asia, as one friend understatedly puts it. So when it was discovered that he had made no provision for heirs in his will, several mothers claiming to have borne Hillblom’s children emerged out of the Filipino-Vietnamese-Micronesian hooker circuit, and a battle royale erupted among these seemingly overmatched claimants and the forces of Hillblom’s business associates.

The apparently benign motives of the latter — Hillblom had designated his money for medical research — take on a bad aftertaste as they pull out the heavy legal artillery in their efforts to discredit the children’s claims.

Their surprisingly resilient opponent is David Lujan, who describes himself as a lowly criminal lawyer. “Just give me the facts and I’ll argue them,” he says. But in the Hillblom case, there were very few facts, and very little effort made to unearth any, until Lujan takes on the case of a rather presumptively named Saipan youngster, Junior Larry Hillblom.

“Billionaire” has a dubious hero in the tough Lujan, who is hardly charming and, one has to suppose, is in it totally for the money. Likewise difficult to appreciate are the more malignant members of the self-appointed Hillblom team, who unfortunately never talked to helmer Spraic (and you can’t really suppose they would have).

Hillblom, for all his supposed eccentricity, single-mindedness in building DHL and admiration for another billionaire pilot, Howard Hughes, winds up as the clear villain of the story; his practices in the sex districts of Southeast Asia are too sordid for the film to use the appropriate word.

Production values are fine, given the patchwork of sources, and Spraic’s editing is valiant.

Shadow Billionaire

Production

A BMP Films presentation. (International sales: Submarine Films, New York.) Produced by Sasha Alpert. Executive producers, Jonathan Murray, Gil Goldschein, Josh Braun. Co-producer, Alexis Manya Spraic. Directed, edited by Alexis Manya Spraic.

Crew

Camera (color), Jon Aaron Aaseng; music, Luke Rothschild, Holly Rothschild, String Theory; music supervisor, Dave Stone; supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer, Joe Milner; associate producers, Christine Berry, Susan Denison. Reviewed at Tribeca Cinemas, Manhattan, April 4, 2009. (In Tribeca Film Festival -- competing; Hot Docs Film Festival, Toronto.) Running time: 86 MIN.

With

David Lujan, Peter Manso, Peter Donnici, Joseph Waechter.

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