Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Run Time: 1 hour, 52 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern, Noah Lomax
Written and Directed by Ramin Bahrani (At Any Price, Goodbye Solo, Chop Shop, Strangers)
Set against the backdrop of the housing crisis just a few years ago, 99 Homes (opening today) is a strong film that reveals much of what went on in the real estate market following the economic crash. But it can also be considered fantasy, as too many elements of its story are left to chance, coincidence, or dare I say, manipulation.
Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) is a single father trying to make ends meet and keep his home after the devastation that occurred in the housing market back in 2008-2010. He is about to get evicted from his life-long home, where he still lives trying to support his mother (Laura Dern, in an under-cooked role). He does get evicted, by sleazy real estate shark, Rick Carver (Michael Shannon, who plays sleazy better than anybody), who has built a small empire foreclosing on homes, evicting residents and flipping their homes for profit. It's not what many would call an "honest living," although it is unclear if it is outright illegal.
Carver is an uncaring prick, because as the movie suggests, you sort of have to be to exist in this line of work. Garfield does good work as the desperate Nash, willing to do anything to keep his child in school and to try to get his house back from Carver and the bank.
And I mean "willing to do anything," even go to work for the very man, Carver, who evicted him.
Carver pulls Nash - and the audience - into the world of real estate, evictions and house-flipping. He scams the system by removing air conditioner units and pool pumps, only to sell them back when refurbishing the homes. Evicted residents are offered "Cash for Keys," where they are given an incentive to leave their house in good shape, a pitiful amount when considering what these people have lost. As Nash begins to do work for Carver, he makes more money than he ever could have before. Carver eventually pulls Nash into the world of evictions, and ironically it is now Nash himself on the doorstep swooping in as the grim reaper of real estate, coming face to face with people that were just like him not all that long ago.
The first half of the movie is a very chilling, compelling look at how things work, and how the system is stacked against common folks even more than we may have ever realized. But at some point, it becomes a bit circumstantial and tries to turn itself into a drama. Which is a shame. It's as if the filmmakers didn't have enough faith that Nash's story would be interesting enough on its own, so they decided to fill the last half-hour with craziness. Also, the characters are painted in deep blacks and bright whites, representing ideas or "kinds" of people instead of creating one that feel like real people. The longer you spend with these characters, the more artificial they feel, and the less effective Nash's dilemma becomes.
99 Homes isn't a lemon, but is sours the longer it continues on. Still, it's one of the first and only movies that takes a real look into the recent housing crash, exposing more than a few real-life horrors on its way to conceiving manufactured drama.
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