Ramin Bahrani became a hot property and a Guggenheim Fellowship winner last decade after making Man Push Cart, Chop Shop and Goodbye Solo in quick succession. That 1-2-3 punch pushed Bahrani to the fore of a cinematic movement that A.O. Scott labeled “Neo-Neo Realism,” although it might be more accurate to call the trio a 1-2-3 nudge, since nothing in Bahrani’s work carries the impact of a punch.
Bahrani made his bones by crafting small-scale portraits of decent people living on society’s margins starring largely nonprofessional actors, so it’s no big shock that he hit the critical wall with his first star-heavy production, 2012’s At Any Price. His follow-up film is the more assured 99 Homes, an aggressively topical drama set amid the 2010 housing crisis, but you can still feel Bahrani struggling to find intimacy and retain his identity while painting on a larger canvas.
99 Homes premiered at Toronto in September 2014 but it’s just now getting a wide release and an ostensible awards push. It stars a surprisingly authentic Andrew Garfield, liberated from Spider-Man purgatory as Dennis Nash, a single father and often uncompensated day laborer willing to do anything to protect his family home, even if it means evicting other Orlando homeowners.
The film opens on the dead body of an unidentified homeowner who committed suicide in the process of getting evicted, and as Dennis navigates the world of deceptive banks and predatory retailers and unforgiving judges, we come to understand how a man with nothing left to lose can get to that point. Before they can file an appeal, Dennis and his family are evicted from their home, pulled out by police officers and shuffled off to a seedy hotel stuffed with other evicted families.
Michael Shannon does a tremendous slither as Rick Carver, an ethically challenged, cash-rich realtor making a killing on human misery and economic devastation, a 21st-century demon dressed in cream-colored suits and armored in black SUVs. Rick evicts Dennis and then hires him, initially to clean out empty houses, but eventually he takes the young man under his vulture’s wing.
“Don’t get sensitive about real estate,” says the reptilian father figure Rick, but Dennis only cares about getting his home back, so he explores some of the more morally repugnant avenues of the booming foreclosure business, trading pieces of his soul for larger and larger paychecks. Dennis doesn’t tell his son or mother (Laura Dern) where the piles of money are coming from, a silly deception established only so that it can publicly spill out later.
Unfortunately, that blow-up scene is where things start to go south for 99 Homes, as a strong opening gets undermined by an increasingly incredulous and incongruous final act. As an emotional tour of the housing crisis, Bahrani’s work passes inspection, but as a drama it’s structurally unsound, increasingly relying on telegraphed melodrama. His films are so wispy that Bahrani may never hit a home run, but he seems to possess an endless supply of infield singles.