Director: Ramin Bahrani
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern
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Synopsis: A father struggles to get back the home that his family was evicted from by working for the greedy real estate broker who’s the source of his frustration.
99 Homes has a good heart. It’s a shout out to all those unfortunate souls who suffered from the housing bubble that preceded the recession. But director Ramin Bahrani’s melodramatic touch is amiss. Melodrama can be a strong subversive and satirical form of cinematic expression. But when it’s bad melodrama, it makes the movie stink.
There’s a “boogieman” in the form of Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), a hard ass real estate broker, king of evictions in the Orlando, Florida area. He’s on site for every one of them. He works with the banks, flips the houses, and hedges his bet defrauding the very banks he works with. While Carver’s business practices should speak loudly enough, there’s still some bad boy left in him. He cheats on his wife, has multiple lavish homes in an area full of people losing theirs, and doesn’t lose a wink of sleep over any of it. Carver’s super villainy saps 99 Homes of its purpose. The film morphs into a real estate version of Training Day, but without drugs, murder, and Denzel—all the good stuff. Normally it’d take Superman to stop someone as evil as Rick Carver, but his match comes in the form of a young ward.
Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), a construction worker down on his luck, is evicted along with his young son (Noah Lomax) and mother (Laura Dern). They move into a nearby motel full of fellow deadbeats. Luckily, and obviously, Dennis takes a job as one of Carver’s crew members when a house full of feces needs shoveling. How all that crap got in there isn’t the point. The point is that Dennis Nash is more than willing to shovel it. From doody to dollar signs, Dennis shoots up the ladder as Carver’s right-hand man.
J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call took us into the boardroom of a large investment bank on the eve of the financial crisis. The film operated more so as entertainment, but inasmuch to reveal the cold, calculated, instinctual self-preservation of the banking system. It found its subversive nature organically. Bahrani, obviously hot for his good cause, forgets tact along the way. Zooming close-ups settle on the crying and distraught faces of our stars. Montage takes the place of meaningful scenes and sequences. We see a litany of victims of the housing bubble, shell shocked and handing over keys, or wielding weapons with intent to harm. A demented older gentleman reveals his mental decay by babbling about his companionless existence as he is ushered from his home. At least the sheriff on hand is nice to him. I am not ashamed to admit I shed a tear in the moment, though I think it had to do with a deep fear of dementia and being alone in my old age. These injustices are shown in cartoonish stereotypes.
Andrew Garfield seems impressed with his ability to affect a Floridian accent. He’s almost too cute in all his different outfits. Michael Shannon is stiff and plastic in his acute portrayal of an asshole. Laura Dern, as Dennis’ mother, is perfectly capable of moralizing Dennis about where his newfound wealth comes from, and yet she can’t hold down a job of any kind. None of the performances stole the show, though it was imperative that they did so. These are weak Oscar grabs at best, thin actors portraying thinner characters (and I mean “thin” literally, as 99 Homes has a very fit starring cast).
I love the documentary form when it comes to such massive subjects as these. Michael Moore’s Roger & Me, Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke, many of Frederick Wiseman’s films, these movies have a similar passion to what Bahrani is expressing—a heart for people who suffer greatly—except they let the real people tell their own story. This dose of reality is invaluable in the telling of great human injustice. 99 Homes drowns in Hollywood.