Stealing wads of pelf from a dead man seems like a victimless crime, unless you’re a character in a gangster yarn. Then, you’re just plain old taking your life into your hands. We’re talking about what’s arguably the most amoral genre of all time, a mode of storytelling that thrives on shades of grey (and has done since Raymond Carver and Dashiell Hammett started putting pen to paper in the 1920s and ’30s). Just like underage sex and wanton drug use are death sentences in slasher cinema, so too is pocketing mystery cash in a crime thriller. Before you know it, you’re on the receiving end of an angry hoodlum’s pool cue, wondering how you got into this mess in the first place.
Apparently, nobody ever thought to mention any of this to Tom (James Franco) and Anna (Kate Hudson), the husband/wife protagonists of Henrik Ruben Genz’ Good People. They’re American ex-pats living in a run-down rental property in London, toiling away on renovating their dream house in the city’s West End and incurring Herculean debts along the way, all the while struggling to conceive their first child. When their downstairs tenant croaks from an offscreen overdose, the duo finds a small fortune stashed in his ceiling, and without giving a second thought to the consequences of larceny they snatch the loot for their own in the hopes of making a home (and a family) together—once the brouhaha over the incident dies down, of course.
Which it doesn’t. No sooner do Tom and Kate decide to make use of their ill-gotten gains than they’re visited in turn by a diverse coterie of concerned parties: historically astute French drug lord Genghis Khan (Omar Sy), boilerplate Brit thug Jack Witkowski (Sam Spruell), and pure-hearted detective John Halden (Tom Wilkinson). Jack and Khan both have a claim on the dough—it’s Khan’s by right, but Jack robs it from him fair and square in the film’s opening sequence—while John has a personal reason for involving himself in the whole ordeal. All the while, Tom and Anna hustle to keep one step ahead of everyone else in the hopes of finally making a home (and a family) together.
That’s kind of a tall order: they’re not total idiots, but Tom and Anna are altogether outmatched by their adversaries and by the law. On one level, that’s okay. There’s no rule stating that characters in fictional narratives must always make smart choices, and good drama often hinges on transgressions against common sense. But Good People’s leads are so in over their heads that watching as they’re menaced by one heavy after the next feels akin to boxing a kitten. They’re just not made for the lifestyle that Khan and Jack belong to. Maybe the film could have made something out of their innocence, but it renders Tom’s and Anna’s torment bluntly routine, and frankly, there’s no fun in that.
So when we get to the third act and Good People takes a page from Home Alone, things perk up substantially. If the rest of its set pieces were this gruesomely amusing, then Genz might have had a gem on his hands. Up until his finale, we just suffer through a series of sequences in which Franco gets beaten to a horrible, bloody pulp (which might have some weird base appeal for some) while Hudson is given occasional carte blanche to outwit their enemies and look like a badass. This, too, has its charms, but she’s not permitted to be the heroine often enough, and that’s a real drag, because she clearly relishes every such opportunity that she’s given.
Good People has some meat on its bones, but it’s a fundamentally dopey movie that tries too hard and takes itself far too seriously. It also can’t decide if it wants to shoot for straight up entertainment value or if it actually cares about the moral questions it raises through its text. Fundamentally, this is a film about two individuals willfully doing the wrong thing for once in their lives, and the repercussions they face for straying from their ethics. Really, what’s the harm in taking money that doesn’t belong to anybody, especially since it’ll be put to good use paying for IVF treatments and giving a decrepit old fixer upper some TLC? But even if Good People answers that question in the bluntest way possible, it doesn’t really bother to explore it, and so its driving themes go woefully underserved for its eighty-minute running time. If it managed to at least be a consistently thrilling ride, none of that would matter, but intermittently good just isn’t good enough.
Director: Henrik Ruben Genz
Writer: Kelly Masterson
Starring: James Franco, Kate Hudson, Tom Wilkinson, Omar Sy, Sam Spruell
Release Date: Sept. 26th, 2014
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and TV on the web since 2009. You can follow him on Twitter.