Tough break. After 15 years in director’s jail, “Wonderland” helmer James Cox resurfaces with another smarmy true-crime drama, “Billionaire Boys Club,” this one about a bunch of Los Angeles investment scammers who wound up whacking a couple of their associates when their Ponzi scheme started to go south, only to have the film implode in the wake of #MeToo allegations against co-star Kevin Spacey. (Cox made one other film, 2013’s “Straight A’s,” which fell all but unheard in the straight-to-DVD forest.) This one quietly debuted via VOD on July 17, where there was presumably little demand, followed by a small theatrical release a month later.
Granted, it doesn’t help that “Billionaire Boys Club” was horrible to begin with, the kind of dumbed-down, West Coast, wanna-be “The Wolf of Wall Street” that gives “derivatives trading” a whole new meaning. But the irony of the film’s inevitable failure is that Spacey — who delivers one of his great egomaniacal scenery-chewing performances — took the risk of playing a character dangerously close to his off-screen persona (the one captured by Croatian paparazzi slapping a young man’s backside, or outed by “Rent” star Anthony Rapp as a predatory pederast late last year) at roughly the same moment those similarities were revealed to the world, making it doubly uncomfortable to watch the actor leer at the ensemble of generically handsome Ken-doll dudes the movie parades in front of him.
A flashy, all-surface-no-substance plunge into ’80s excess, “Billionaire Boys Club” is inspired by the spectacular rise and calamitous fall of financial scam artist Joe Hunt — a name he had given himself, somewhere between being booted from the Harvard School debate team for falsifying evidence and busted for fraud while working as a floor trader on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Played with dopey naiveté by Ansel Elgort (who previously co-starred with Spacey in “Baby Driver”), Hunt is presented here as a well-meaning victim of class circumstances, seduced into betraying a bunch of born suckers by the glitzy allure of their Beverly Hills lifestyles. The movie goes far out of its way to suggest that Hunt wasn’t such a bad guy, joining this summer’s ill-conceived “Gotti” in the category of loathsome apologias for convicted creeps.
As with “Wonderland” — which retold the true story of the drug-deal-gone-wrong fictionalized in the third act of “Boogie Nights,” doing so with a stunning lack of style or purpose — Cox revisits a notorious L.A.-area crime, this one previously used as fodder for a 1987 TV movie starring Ron Silver in the Spacey role (Judd Nelson, who played Hunt in that version, resurfaces here as the character’s father). In this case, rather than delivering a film that inevitably pales in comparison with Paul Thomas Anderson’s treatment of the same subject, Cox finds himself doing a poor imitation of Martin Scorsese, channeling the manic hedonism of both “Goodfellas” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” minus the seductive magnetism of either film’s central performance.
Cox isn’t much of a screenwriter, but he’s picked up a few tricks behind the camera, injecting gratuitous winks to the early-’80s milieu, many of which will be lost on audiences too young to catch the references — like the sight of Hunt, looking fly in suit and shades, blown away by a hi-fi stereo (not Maxell, though it might as well be), while not-entirely-reliable narrator Dean Karny (“Kingsman’s” Taron Egerton) spouts some nonsense about what it takes to be rich. The movie is positively fixated on wealth, radically oversimplifying the scheme by which Hunt and Karny arranged to make millions. “Because the perception of reality is more important than reality itself,” Spacey explains at one point, all but daring to overlook the hairpiece that transforms him into Hollywood player Ron Levin.
Levin is one of those larger-than-life figures at which Spacey excels, a vaguely homosexual variation on the ruthless super-agent he played in “Swimming With Sharks,” and he’s got a few wild scenes, including one in which Levin dines with Andy Warhol (an unrecognizable Cary Elwes) at Spago, making lewd remarks about the size of certain celebrity endowments. We’re meant to identify with Hunt, who grew up hopelessly middle class and doesn’t dare jeopardize his entrée into posh Beverly Hills circles, but any normal person would run the other way. Instead, he dives even deeper into what feels like the swimming pool from “Less Than Zero,” dating artist’s assistant Sydney Evans (Emma Roberts), who’s the closest thing this movie has to a conscience and one of the only female characters in this bro-y boys’ club. There are no billionaires here, just a lot of testosterone where the movie’s brains ought to be.