Movie Review: ‘Billionaire Boys Club’ Spins the Wolves of Rodeo Drive
In the early 1980s, a group of young SoCal yuppies led by Joe Hunt and Dean Karny created what would later become known as the Billionaire Boys Club, an investment firm that was in reality little more than a Ponzi scheme.
But the Club would become infamous after the group resorted to more deadly crimes in order to make its money, and five of its members found themselves on trial for murder in a much-publicized court case.
The exploits of the Billionaire Boys Club would become the basis for a 1987 TV movie of the same name that starred Judd Nelson as Hunt, and now another feature by that name written and directed by James Cox, best known for his underrated account of another infamous 1980s L.A. crime story, Wonderland.
2018’s Billionaire Boys Club features rising stars Ansel Elgort and Taron Egerton as Hunt and Karny, high school friends who reunite after college to insert themselves in the upscale L.A. Spago scene and get rich quick.
After seeing a picture of Steve Jobs on the cover of Time, Elgort’s Hunt comes up with “The Paradox Theory”: bad can be good, and uncrossable lines can be crossed, if only you change your perspective. Or something like that.
Cox’s script, co-written with Captain Mauzner, doesn’t do a great job of getting across Hunt’s brilliant concept or how he’s able to convince anyone else to buy into it. But soon the Billionaire Boys Club is running a disarmingly straightforward Ponzi scheme, using funds from new investors to pay off old ones and support a lifestyle of sex, drugs, Mulholland Drive condos and Armani suits.
You might think a new movie starring Elgort, who led last year’s summer hit Baby Driver, and Egerton, star of the Kingsman movies and the upcoming Robin Hood, might get at least a little fanfare. But Billionaire Boys Club has quietly slipped onto streaming services this month with little publicity.
That might be due to the presence of Kevin Spacey, in his first film appearance since allegations of misconduct arose last fall and led to his costly scrubbing from the already-completed Ridley Scott feature All the Money in the World.
Spacey stars as Ron Levin, here presented as a vaguely homosexual conman who chats up Andy Warhol (in a scene-stealing cameo from Cary Elwes) and preys upon the young boys with promises of millions of dollars. It’s a distracting-but-fascinating performance that uncomfortably parallels Spacey’s current image in the media.
Billionaire Boys Club, however, fares better when Spacey isn’t on the screen. After a rocky start that tries to cover too much ground and features one subplot or character too many (Ryan Rottman, Jeremy Irvine, Barney Harris and Thomas Cocquerel star as other members of the Club, Emma Roberts and Suki Waterhouse are the lead’s girlfriends, and Judd Nelson plays the father of the character he played in the 1987 film), the movie settles into a nice groove during climactic events when the schemes turn deadly.
At its best, Billionaire Boys Club is a second-rate version of The Wolf of Wall Street, but there’s one key difference. Scorsese never expected us to empathize with Jordan Belfort, and pulled no punches while depicting his exploits. Cox, meanwhile, wants us to care about Hunt and Karny even as they get involved in murder, and it’s a near-impossible task to get us there.
Slickly produced and fluidly shot around convincingly 1980s L.A. locations (the cinematographer was Jim Muro, who directed the 1987 exploitation classic Street Trash), Billionaire Boys Club is at least a passable version of this true-crime saga that deserves a better fate than what it has received so far.
Bonus: a catchy soundtrack that includes period hits like Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax, The Talking Heads’ This Must Be the Place, Adam Ant’s Goody Two Shoes, and more.