Billionaire Boys Club review: this toothless Wolf of Wall Street has bigger problems than Kevin Spacey

The Billionaire Boys Club cast, minus Kevin Spacey

Asleazy creature ofLos Angelesis unmasked as something other than what he claims to be and pays the ultimate price. So might begin a dummys guide to the rise and fall ofKevin Spacey, whose career unravelled last year amid reports of inappropriate behaviour on set. Remarkably, it is also the brush-strokes arc of the Eighties scam artist he plays in what will presumably be his final movie, the just-released Billionaire Boys Club.

That the parallels have gone largely unremarked upon is probably because nobody has actually seen thefilm. Quietly slipped out on video on demand in July, James Coxs true crime caper finally made it to the big screen in the US over the weekend,taking in a deafening $126 on opening day.

Thus not only has Spaceys life and times become a real world morality play. He has now earned a place in history as theOscarwinner posting the biggest flop of all time. Did he, its tempting to wonder,  have an inkling what was coming down the track when he agreed to play the late Ron Levin?

Spacey has conspicuous fun amping up the serial fraudster as a leery libertine who flirts inappropriately with the young men to whom he sets himself up as business world mentor in early Eighties Los Angeles. During a scene in which Levin is having dinner with Andy Warhol, Spacey, eyes practically popping, delivers a single entendre about the rumoured size of a celebritys salami.

When Hollywood gets around to making a movie about Spaceys own downfall, the actor playing him could do worse than study what will presumably be the fallen stars farewell performance for inspiration.

This isnt to suggest Billionaire Boys Club is worth seeking out. It should, in fact, be avoided like a contagious rash. Having spent 15 years in directors jail after reputedly finally finishing off Val Kilmers career with the calamitous drug heist caper Wonderland, Cox appears to have taken on the new project as a challenge to see if he can do even worse.

The answer is that he certainly can. Billionaire Boys Club is based on the true life story of  Joe Hunt (Baby Drivers Ansel Elgort), a yuppie scamster who, 25 years before Bernie Madoff, built a glittering pyramid scheme by swindling the bored scions of the Beverly Hills elite.

Cox is obviously directing in the slipstream of Martin Scorsese, who traced a similar story in the Wolf of Wall Street. The decision to finally release the movie, meanwhile, was reportedly a heavy-hearted one, undertaken by indie distributor Vertical Entertainment in order to give the cast, as well as hundreds of crew members who worked hard on the film, the chance to see their final product reach audiences.

In fact, it opened in just a handful of screens in the US. One cinema in Los Angeles is believed to have screened it just once, at 9.30am. Another, in Brooklyn, listed a single showing at 10pm.

Yet in different circumstances, it is easy to imagine Billionaire Boys Club striking gold at the box office (it already inspired a well-regarded 1987 miniseries, with Judd Nelson as Hunt). On paper, the story reads like a stone-cold smash. Not only was Hunt charming and heartless and ultimately a killer. He also displayed flashes of L.Ron Hubbard megalomania. What a world-class filmmaker such as Paul Thomas Anderson could have down with him is fascinating to imagine.

Born on what he regarded as the wrong side of the American dream, Hunt grew up in middle class Chicago obsessed with the writings of libertarian icon Ayn Rand. He was drawn, especially, to her thesis that greatness was within the gift of those with the courage to claim it without asking anyones permission .

He started the BBC investment fund in 1983, naming it after Bombay Bicycle Club not the indie band you might have seen at Alexandra Palace but an exclusive retreat in Chicago that represented to him the world beyond the velvet rope. With BBC, he aimed to transform not only himself  but also the gullible rich-kids whom he signed up as investors and ultimately turned into acolytes.

His core belief was in a paradox philosophy pop psychology hokum that argued that, in a world of infinite grey, the ends justified the means.

New entrants to the organisation would be given a test. Would you murder someone if you get away with it for a million dollars? The answer was invariably in the negative.

So Hunt would ask, would you murder someone if it meant saving your mother? Naturally, the prospective member would answer in the affirmative. Ah, Hunt would point out, so there were circumstances in which you would cross the line. All you had to do was recognise where the line was drawn  and then move it.

The fatal flaw of the movie is to present someone who was clearly a sociopath as a hero. As portrayed by the boyscout-esque Elgort Spaceys co-star in his before-the-fall hit Baby Driver Hunt is a misunderstood striver.

He honestly doesnt mean to defraud everyone who crosses his path. Indeed, when an early investor explains that hes mortgaged his house to pay for his latest lump sum, Hunt justifies accepting the cheque with the logic that, as one of the early participants in a Ponzi scheme, the victim is bound to do well.

The moral hoops Cox is asking us to jump through here are astonishing. Its as if Mary Harrons American Psycho  argued that Bret Easton Ellis had it all wrong and that Patrick Batemen was simply a Huey Lewis enthusiast who needed a hug (and cast Tom Hanks in the part).

The gulf between the gullible striver played by Elgort and the deceits we see him participate in results in a deeply queasy watch. And thats before we get to the biggest lie of all that Hunt was an accidental accessory to the murder of Ron Levin, the sleaze inhabited with such aplomb by Spacey.

With his fake empire crumbling, Hunt discovered that hed been played like a pro by Levin. Early in their relationship the fixer had arranged for a stock-broker to inform the board of the Billionaire Boys Club that Levin had put $4 million into their fund. In fact, the broker had been told by Levin that he was participating in a documentary and to read the lines out over the phone. There was no $4 million just as there was really no fund

Adding to the insult, Levin then used his relationship with Hunt and the BBC to leverage millions out of another mark. Hed scammed a scammer as part of an even bigger scam.

Hunt and his acolytes were by now spending $70,000 a week on clubs, drugs and girls all straight from the accounts of gullible investors (In the film, it is interesting to note, Hunt is an aesthete more interested in wooing Emma Roberts striving artist Sydney). But not even a natural born swindler could cover up a $4 million hole so one fateful evening Hunt and a doorman turned enforcer invited themselves to Levins house and had him sign a $1.5 million cheque at gunpoint.

What happened next depends on who you believe. Hunt, currently serving life sentence without parol, has always protested his innocence and for many years insisted Levin was still alive and living incognito in New York. In the movie, he is shocked when his heavy, provoked by Levin, shoots their captor in the head. But according to gunman Jim Pittman, he killed Levin after receiving a signal from his boss.

Having disposed of the body, the pair tried to lodge the $1.5 millionscheque only for it to bounce. From beyond the grave, Levin had played them one last time. The web grew even more tangled as, still strapped for cash, Hunt and his associates killed a Iranian emigrant, under the misapprehension hed smuggled millions out of the country during the Islamic revolution.

It was this crime that finally did for him as his associate Dean Karny  a slimy Taron Egerton in the movie ratted him out to the FBI. In short order the full weight of the American justice system fell on his head. He stood trial in 1987 and, though spared the death penalty, is expected to see out his days behind bars.

Coxs movie is more fascinated with Hunts the rise than his fall (the murder hearing and his sentence are perfunctorily detailed before the end credits). Even here, though the film misses a track, skipping cover such lurid details as the 10 motorcycles Hunt lavished on BBC associates after they became concerned for the future of the firm.

As Scorseses Wolf of Wall Street demonstrated its possible to make a compelling movie about a morally-compromised protagonist. But Cox is no Scorsese and Elgorts boyish portrayal of Hunt pales against the layers of guile, sleaze and charm that Leonardo DiCaprio brought to Jordan Belfort.

The film will in all livelihood go down as Kevin Spaceys final humiliation. But the truth is that not even the actor at his height of his powers  and respectability could have saved Billionaire Boys Club.

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