Ripped from the headlines of several years ago and plastered onto theater screens is 99 Homes, which transmutes the subprime-mortgage crisis into a broad morality play. Writer/director Ramin Bahrani has recently made it his “thing” to bring forth relevant message movies with a liberal bent—which is fine. Seriously, it’s fine that 99 Homes’ portrait of mid-Florida as a desolate wasteland of shuttered houses is unlikely to significantly deepen any viewer’s understanding of bank-foreclosure practices or eviction law. Bahrani wants to cinematically smack you upside the head. “Hey! Remember the assholes who ruined our housing market? Come on!” More power to him! But must this message come via such a bland delivery?
99 Homes approaches its subject like a gangster film, with the world of high-rolling real estate brokerage as “the game”—even though most of its nefarious activities are completely legal. Hell, when protagonist Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) accepts an offer to work for businessman Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), Carver even brandishes a gun and strongly advises that Nash get his own. Initially an honest construction worker by trade, Nash is driven to desperation after he, his mother (Laura Dern), and his young son (Noah Lomax) are evicted from their home. Though Carver was the one who handled the foreclosure, Nash finds himself irresistibly drawn into the ruthless wheeler-dealer’s world, even as the moral horror of constantly kicking people out of their homes gnaws at his conscience.
It’s easy to see why. Shannon is fluid steel, a paragon of amorality with an e-cigarette always in hand and a terse response for every scenario. The role of a gangster Lucifer tempting good men into villainy is catnip for actors looking to cut loose, and freed from the restraints of decency, Shannon gets to soar as a seductive badass. He’s got one giant house for his family and another for his mistress and his evil plans.
But unlike in the typical gangster film, Bahrani isn’t about to let audiences get too immersed in wealth and excess. Party scenes are perfunctory. The mansions are too big, colder than their Florida environment seems to allow. Much more time is spent on the street. The point is pressed against the viewer’s face as forcefully as a nail gun. And given the never-ambiguous disgust the film has for Carver’s schemes, that it spends so much time laying them out and observing them becomes even more tiring than it already would be. The sad thing is that the job of a real-estate worker who forecloses houses for banks doesn’t need a Hollywood sexing-up to be interesting.
99 Homes is stuck in the very strange position of scolding its characters along every beat of their journey, sometimes literally in the form of Dern’s character (scolding and/or worrying is all she ever gets to do). It’s the least graceful form of parable, one that doesn’t trust its audience to think for themselves for one minute. Carver is the bad guy and we should disapprove greatly of him, but every scene without him is a bore. It was almost enough to make me want to go into predatory real estate just to spite this movie.