Film Review: Criminal Activities

Quentin Tarantino called. He wants his ideas back.
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The presence of John Travolta isn't the only element reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino in actor Jackie Earle Haley's directorial debut. Featuring self-consciously quirky dialogue, digressive subplots and flashbacks, and a twisty ending so complex it makes The Usual Suspects seem straightforward, Criminal Activities is practically criminal in its derivativeness.

The convoluted screenplay by Robert Lowell (amusingly identified by IMDB as the famed poet who died in 1977) concerns four old college buddies—Noah (Dan Stevens), Zach (Michael Pitt), Bryce (Rob Brown) and Warren (Christopher Abbott)—reuniting after the death of a friend who was run over by a bus. During the course of their rambling conversation, Bryce mentions that he's received an insider-trading tipoff on a pharmaceutical stock that could reap massive rewards and Noah says that he can procure the money to finance the purchase.

But the stock tanks, and it turns out that Noah's borrowed the money from a crime boss, Eddie (Travolta, sporting slick black hair and looking like a Madame Tussauds wax replica of himself). Despite the group owing him $400,000, Eddie turns out to be a friendly, jovial sort of fellow, insisting that everyone call him by his first name and, instead of overtly threatening them, delivering a lecture on economic principles.

Since they clearly don't have the money to pay him back, Eddie helpfully offers an alternative: If they kidnap the nephew of a rival gang leader who has taken Eddie's niece hostage, he'll forgive the debt.

The bumbling quartet does just that, in the process revealing both their faces and real names to their angry hostage, Marques (Edi Gathegi), who takes the time to point out the aesthetic qualities of his pearl-handled revolver.     

It turns out that the feds are also interested in Marques, so a pair of agents, who seem to be on very warm terms with Eddie, turn to him for information. This leads to the gangster delivering a lecture on his favorite play, Macbeth, which neither of the feds seems to have heard of.

Also figuring in the plot is Eddie's chief enforcer Gerry (Haley), whose casual mention of the scar on his ear leads to a flashback depicting a violent childhood incident that has nothing to do with anything.

Travolta is looser here than he's been in a while, reveling in his character's quirks which include drinking a kale shake because he's training for a marathon and taking the time to brutally beat up the abusive boyfriend of his favorite waitress.

But despite the strong performances and Haley's assured direction, Criminal Activities founders, particularly in its ridiculous final act filled with surprise revelations doled out in a plodding exposition that serves mainly to showcase the screenwriter's cleverness.--The Hollywood Reporter

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