If everything that goes on in CBS’ “The Crooked E” really occurred at Enron during the Houston company’s halcyon days, then America is in serious trouble. Habitual coercion, secretaries who doubled as topless dancers at office functions, thousand-dollar lunches — the dirty little secrets on display are good for a nervous chuckle, but whether the once-Fortune 500 corporation is portrayed responsibly is definitely questionable. What’s more, the strange teaming of director Penelope Spheeris (“The Beverly Hillbillies”) and scribe Stephen Mazur (“Liar Liar”) doesn’t quite pay off — this stained chapter in U.S. history is too complex and important to be handled with jokey tones. “Barbarians at the Gate” is not an easy target to hit.
Considering the Eye web pushed back “The Crooked E” from November sweeps, telepic feels like it’s unofficially been marked with a tag of disapproval. That’s surprising, since Enron’s plight continues to be in the news; its ripple effects are still changing the course of business while representing the distressed post-Clinton U.S. economy. That’s not a judgment call — President Bush’s image and name are front and center in several scenes, and he’s treated as a major sympathizer to a conglom that never paid a bill and racked up billions in debt.
“The Crooked E” is based on Brian Cruver’s book “Anatomy of Greed: The Unshredded Truth From an Enron Insider.” A 26-year-old whiz kid, Cruver (Christian Kane) became a golden boy in the bankruptcy protection department with a sweet girlfriend (Shannon Elizabeth) and an attraction to cash. Cruver, like his colleagues, turned into a Lexus-driving, sushi-eating shark with visions of million-dollar homes, expensive watches and an unblemished future.
As each fiscal session passed, however, he noticed more discrepancies: Quarterly reports were sketchy, and contracts he booked were being changed without his approval. But none of this hurt his bonus potential; in fact, his paycheck seemed to grow, despite the curious accounting practices undertaken by his managers and the Arthur Andersen crew who roosted on another floor.
Like a cult in Armani suits, Enron continued to be “led” by Kenneth Lay (Mike Farrell), who knows exactly what the troops want to hear, even after the tumble begins. As for Lay’s henchmen, Jeffrey Skilling (Jon Ted Wynne), now known for the way his wife auctioned all of their assets after his demise, is the ruthless profitmonger who curses during public forums and stands by while colleagues ankle; and Mr. Blue (Brian Dennehy) is Cruver’s hero, a tough dealmaker who never discloses the problems.
For every one of Spheeris’ “bits” that works — after each commercial break, a stock price is given so viewers can feel part of the collapse — there are several that don’t. Sherron Watkins, just named Time magazine’s co-person of the year for her role as a whistleblower, is treated as a brief sidenote. There’s no mention of vice chairman J. Clifford Baxter’s suicide. Even the minutiae is overdone — the PR queen says “y’all” nonstop just to remind us that “Crooked E” takes place in Texas.
Like Matt Damon in “The Rainmaker” or Tom Cruise in “The Firm,” Kane has the right amount of wide-eyed charm, but as the circumstances grow more dim and the world around him shrinks, he’s not able to pull off the range of emotion needed to carry such weighty matter. And there’s never any indication that he’s bright or savvy enough to write a tell-all.
Supporting cast, considering the Watergate-like intricacies of the collapse, are ineffective. Elizabeth does nothing more than pout while worrying about her fiance’s transformation; Dennehy is a towering presence but shows little depth as the man whose job it was to hide harms; and Farrell, whose depiction of chairman Lay could have become a film all to itself, is reduced to press conferences and earnings announcements.
Strangely enough, not until the final moments does “The Crooked E” get going; with a “who’s where now” finale that bears the earmarks of “GoodFellas” in its fourth-wall teardown — Cruver talks to the camera while jogging — still-frame approach and snarkiness, but unearths true humor among humorless conditions without sinking to immature storytelling.
“The Crooked E” was filmed in Winnipeg, and the Enron HQ looks every bit the replica.