With Unfriended, Criminal Activities becomes the second film released this year whose moral lesson pretty much comes down to how you shouldn’t be an asshole to people. Because: Who knows? Maybe the victim of your asshole-ishness will become a cyber-ghost wreaking bloody revenge for that one time when you filmed her pooping her pants at a party (sorry: spoilers), and maybe an old college friend who you used to harass mercilessly will, a decade later, lure you into an overcomplicated criminal enterprise spurred by the wax simulacrum of a sadly aging John Travolta, and you’ll have to spend a long, sleepless night listening to Michael Pitt’s coke-fueled, piss-mouth’d gibberish. Wake up, America: Bullying is a serious problem no matter how old you are.
The directorial debut of actor Jackie Earle Haley—best known for mining seriously deep pathos from thin caricatures in Little Children and The Watchmen—Criminal Activities reeks of the philosopher’s cool that Travolta brought to his Chili Palmer almost 20 years ago. Here Travolta slides back into the niche Tarantino once crafted for him, meaner (and his botox’d-to-death skin tighter) than ever, as psychotically smooth crime boss Eddie, the kind of “new generation” kingpin who drinks kale smoothies and uses Macbeth allusions to prove a point about his most recent criminal enterprise. Yet, Eddie repeatedly mentions that he’s drinking a kale smoothie, repeatedly disparages anyone else from drinking a kale smoothie, and his point pinging MacBeth could be made using literally any other famous piece of literature, from the Bible to picks by Salman Rushdie or Dan Brown. My point isn’t that kale smoothies are bad (they aren’t) or that someone who drinks kale smoothies couldn’t also be a bad person, it’s that Robert Lowell’s abysmal screenplay confuses assembled quirks for character-building, much like John Travolta’s face confuses the assemblage of countless out-patient plastic surgery appointments for actual human anatomy.
Which isn’t exactly an enlightening criticism, I know, but Lowell’s plotting, ideas, characters, dialogue, pacing, themes and general creativity are so anachronistic, so incompetent and tone-deaf, that even the basest tenets of story construction seem completely lost to a guy who probably just wanted to emulate True Romance. After all, the pieces are there: Four buddies from college scrounge up $200,000 to invest in pharmaceutical stock, eventually learning that one of the friends “scrounged” the money from a malevolent crime boss (Travolta), who asks for twice the amount in repayment when the stock tanks. Luckily, Eddie has a better idea, allowing the boys some reprieve by tasking them with kidnapping the wicked nephew of a rival crime boss who’s kidnapped Eddie’s niece, aiming to bring the two syndicates together for a hopefully peaceful hostage negotiation. If the four friends succeed, they’ll have their debts wiped clean. It’s all the stuff of pretty standard pulp, with one’s enjoyment probably dependent most on how much one anticipates a twist ending or two.
The cast, to Haley’s credit, is superb, each actor capable of inhabiting roles that at best require some rote emoting, at worst essentially amount to a flesh-vessel hollering the word “fuck” endlessly into an indifferent void. There’s Michael Pitt (who was transcendent on Season 2 of Hannibal) playing smarmy bruh Zach, a stock broker or financial advisor or something—basically the kind of person who wears sunglasses to a funeral and gets really defensive when you suggest he maybe lay off the coke a bit. Zach services as the default leader of the crew, though he spends the entire movie fretting over his super-model-y fiancée’s possible affairs rather than focusing on the fact that John-Travolta-with-Mickey Rourke-face is going to murder him and his friends. The angel on Zach’s right shoulder is Warren (Christopher Abbott, off a star-making turn in James White), a recovering alcoholic, accompanied by cool cucumber Bryce (Rob Brown, Treme). The foursome is rounded out with Noah, wiry, mop-headed milquetoast played to nervous perfection by Dan Stevens, whose transformation from the stud of The Guest to this nebbish is an amazing feat in and of itself. It’s Noah, of course, who first strikes the deal with Eddie, setting into motion the fateful chain of events.
Yet, rather than develop any of its characters past surface sentiments, Criminal Activities pulls in ancillary personas and piles on one inconsequential digression after another. Haley steps in to play Gerry, one of Eddie’s henchman, who in turn tells a story about this one time when he was little and a drug addict busted into his house demanding money, but how meanwhile a little boy of the same age downstairs grabbed a shotgun and—it doesn’t matter: The story goes nowhere, purposelessly, and ends in gratuitous violence, as does a similar digression in which John Travolta’s Eddie takes it upon himself to beat the shit out of some guy with a wrench because said guy was abusing Eddie’s favorite waitress at his favorite club. Violence begets violence, the lines between good and evil are never well-defined, push anyone hard enough and they’re capable of anything—these are the themes Lowell’s script appears to be investigating, were he ever able to write any scene to some sort of coherent resolution.
Haley, though, excels in coherence. His direction, frankly, deserves so much better material. With a knack for choreography and an indelible sense of space, Haley can punctuate even the most ham-fisted scenes with slight moments of brilliance, be it the hyper-realistic way he can piece together a car chase or the way he’ll simply let a shot linger an extra beat, deriving tension from seemingly tension-less tripe. Still, Haley even falls prey to indulging too many pointless techniques, filling out screen time, for example, with long tracking shots positioned behind a walking character’s head, offering the viewer the distinct privilege of watching Gerry walk slowly up a flight of stairs, say, or of waiting for Eddie to walk through a crowded club to make it to a table and drink his goddamn kale smoothie already.
There, of course, is a twist ending, and when it does come it’s treated as an exquisite revelation. Chances are, though, you may not see it coming—and not because you haven’t been paying attention, or because you are much too gullible an audience member. You may not see it coming because it means nothing. It serves nothing. It’s unearned; it is nothing. Should you struggle to justify making it to the end of the film, there is something to grab a hold of desperately in the aforementioned “don’t be a jerk” lesson farted out of the film’s back end like an afterthought, but it inevitably amounts to nothing anyway: All sound and fury, signifying nothing—just clichés begetting clichés.
Director: Jackie Earle Haley
Writer: Robert Lowell
Starring: Michael Pitt, John Travolta, Christopher Abbott, Dan Stevens, Rob Brown, Jackie Earle Haley, Edi Gathegi
Release Date: November 20, 2015
Dom Sinacola is Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. Since he grew up in the Detroit area, it is required by law that his favorite movie is Robocop. You can follow him on Twitter.