Fact-based “The Wolf of Wall Street” won criticism from some quarters for seeming to revel in its protagonist’s sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, while barely chiding him for the predatory, large-scale financial fraud that funded it. Cüneyt Kaya’s new “Rising High” offers a similar disconnect in its fictive tale of bold chicanery in the realm of high-end real estate, treating its heroes’ climb to ill-gotten wealth as a vicarious thrill ride, with scant attention paid to the victims they presumably bankrupt.
This new Netflix offering from Germany is slick and energetic. But even as a mostly less-than-serious (let alone credible) criminal caper, it has a distinctly second-hand feel. We’ve partied with more-or-less these same plucky, covetous nobodies before, watched lookalike scenes of wenching, snorting and bling-flaunting. Their familiarity breeds a certain contempt. This is a competently crafted movie too shallow to come up with much reason why we should root for these people, and too derivative to make their vertiginous rise and fall more than forgettable formula entertainment.
The déjà vu gets off to a pushy start with a heavy-handedly flashy opening sequence in which partners Viktor (David Kross) and Gerry (Frederick Lau) launch their latest questionably legal business concern with a mansion blowout in which all the standard moneyed decadences are duly indulged. The morning after, however, passed-out revelers are roused by a police raid. The majority of the film is a flashback as Viktor, subsequently imprisoned on umpteen counts of corruption, fraud, tax evasion, money laundering and such, agrees to tell a journalist (Anne Schafer) the story behind those deeds.
Thus we wind back to his childhood, receiving somewhat naive wisdoms from a nice-guy father (Robert Schupp) who always finished last. Wanting to do dad proud, but also having realized that high ideals equal low returns, Viktor swiftly learns that the only way to flourish in the big city without pre-existing wealth or connections is to fake possession of both.
He soon gains a co-conspirator in the rougher-edged Gerry, who proposes they “get into properties.” They then commence buying luxury apartments at auction with money they don’t have — but can hopefully attract at a markup from immediate-turnaround sales before the auction house calls in its chips. This scheme requires drafting a third partner in legitimate mortgage broker Nicole (Janina Uhse), a coolly glamorous type who proves an adept confidence trickster herself.
Despite a few hairy moments, all goes swimmingly, with our protagonists raking in the dough, fantasy lifestyles duly achieved, and boyish Gerry eventually settling into married domesticity with Nicole. But Kaya’s glib, pacey script never really convinces on basic levels. While appealingly played, the principal characters seem to possess master-criminal mindsets simply because the plot requires it. Nor can we ever quite believe their displays of role-playing hubris would successfully overwhelm so many individuals, and even entire companies, into forking over large sums without a serious background check.
Flamboyant on the surface, “Rising High” is nonetheless realistic enough in tone that these things matter — we’re expected to swallow (and cheer on) the way these characters “beat the system,” yet their stratagems don’t seem clever enough to manage it. In the real world, that system isn’t such a pushover.
Toward the end, there’s a belated stab at depth in having a repentant Viktor hope for reconciliation with his estranged wife and child. This does provide a touching moment or two, but it’s perhaps too little too late — and earlier suggestions that his material aspirations somehow sprang from pain over his parents’ divorce feel kick-dropped in from some underdeveloped other movie.
“Rising High” works hard to play as a giddy lark, with a constant burble of soundtracked electronica reminding us that it’s party-time. Other design contributions are likewise glossy, and Maren Unterburger’s editing never lags. But easy to digest as the film is, it feels hollow, its escapism recycled from other, better cinematic capers. Meanwhile, the lack of even the faintest socioeconomic critique seems particularly tone-deaf now in a story that at its empty core is all about have’s and have-not’s.