The mortgage crisis gets the ‘Wall Street’ treatment in ’99 Homes’, in both all the right and all the wrong ways. The movie hinges on a pair of brilliant performances and has an excellent first hour. However, when the didactic screenplay lets its message overwhelm the drama, the whole house of cards tips over just before the credits roll.
Michael Shannon stars in a particularly snarling Michael Shannon-esque role as a real estate douchebag who preys on the poor. The film opens with him showing up on the doorstep of Andrew Garfield’s home to announce that he and his family (a son and his mother, more than capably played by the great Laura Dern) are being evicted. In a gut-wrenching scene, they’re given mere minutes to grab their most important belongings before everything they own is humiliatingly dumped onto their lawn. Seeking out some stolen tools, Garfield confronts Shannon the next day and ends up with a job. The next thing he knows, he’s Shannon’s partner and makes a fortune off of a variety of housing scams taking advantage of the mortgage crisis. Eventually, Garfield is evicting people himself and his conscience starts to overwhelm his greed. That’s when the movie starts to fall apart.
Writer/director Ramin Bahrani (‘Goodbye Solo’) has essentially taken all the story beats from ‘Wall Street’ and applied them to contemporary real estate scammers. It’s a clever move, and in the best scenes and sequences, one that leads to a powerful movie. Bahrani knows exactly how to reveal complex scams in a way that feels like storytelling over exposition, and in Shannon and Garfield he has an ideal pair of actors to pull it off. Shannon is a veteran at playing terrifying characters and is so good here that he somehow even makes puffing on an electronic cigarette feel menacing. Garfield, on the other hand, goes from a man at his lowest to a wide-eyed innocent, and back to defeated character without that journey ever feeling forced.
For about 70 minutes, the filmmaker and his actors are in perfect harmony, delivering a searing and relevant slice of social commentary. Then the ending arrives, which comes across as so pat and forced to fit a thesis that it almost undoes everything that worked in the movie until that point. Thankfully, the finale doesn’t kill ’99 Homes’. It just transforms what could have been one of the best movies of the year into a merely decent one.