It’s a testament to the poker face of Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” a brilliant satire in its own right, that the film has ultimately left a net negative impact on American cinema. Every other new biopic or send-up of corporate delinquency willfully imitates that film’s pointed obnoxiousness while never embracing its sinister qualities, feeding into its proposition of toxicity as an attraction in itself.
“The Wolf of Wall Street” continues to have the last laugh with “Gringo,” another in a long line of ostensibly relevant comedies that are overdetermined in attitude to make up for being ideologically unmotivated.
The moral compass guiding us through this world of white collar greed and drug war violence is Harold (David Oyelowo), a hapless Nigerian American employee who works in middle management at a shady pharmaceutical company. After catching wind of a merger that could squeeze him out of a job, Harold takes a business trip from snowy Chicago to sunny Mexico along with his narcissistic horndog bosses (Charlize Theron, Joel Edgerton).
His suspicions are confirmed, and he’s informed by his wife (Thandie Newton) that she’s having an affair (via Skype call, to add insult to injury). With nothing to come home to, Harold stages his own kidnapping in hopes of making a quick buck over his misfortune, unaware that the cartel really is attempting to capture him.
The protracted domino set-up is an absolute slog, building up suspicions that are already assured to be confirmed later on. Harold’s life continues to collapse, but the sting of loss or the cynicism of entropy are completely absent from the proceedings. Instead, the offensiveness of the schemers sort of hangs there — “I’m telling you in American,” Edgerton’s crooked executive states in a particularly self-congratulatory shot at home-grown corporate egotism — its vileness only serving as an increasingly redundant point of comparison to sell us on Harold’s underdog humanity.
Once the kidnapping ploy kicks off, the tempo finally picks up, allowing the film’s perfectly game cast to embody the absurd lengths of their characters’ indignation and greed. Oyelowo makes for an entertaining comic anchor, nimbly oscillating between frenzied fear and happy-go-lucky charm. He ensures that Harold is easy to root for, though the affability does begin to sugarcoat his increasingly opportunistic instincts. The film eventually loses track of its protagonist’s self-actualization arc, but Oyelowo keeps things mildly spontaneous — he’s the least predictable aspect of a film that does little but flail around attempting unpredictability.
It never manages to be more than spry, and it’s oftentimes barely that. In its efforts to pop a wheelie on the zeitgeist, the film demonstrates no knowledge of how to responsibly navigate its politically loaded set-up, much less imaginatively. The thinly drawn relationships allow the film to easily maneuver between a thriller and a comedy, but such a blasé attitude toward defining character dooms the story’s eventual morality plays. There’s no punch to a just desserts finale if everything preceding it is pitched as a lark; only the feigned wokeness ends up showing.
Without much verbal or formal wit, most of the humor functions through lazy tonal whiplash, juxtaposing dour drug war imagery against the blithe attitudes and short-sighted greed that motivates the plotting. The shocks are effective enough at first, but such well-trodden aesthetics can’t hope to propel the film for nearly two hours.
The primarily situational comedy is further diminished by the hideous digital photography it’s captured in. Murky nighttime lighting leaves the reheated action sequences skirting incoherency — a surprising embarrassment considering the director, Nash Edgerton, mainly works in stunts. Pointless widescreen compositions are dominated by dead space, as if the movie has resigned itself to being half-watched by airplane passengers, cropped to fill the tiny screens burrowed in the backs of seats.
Such politically charged material shouldn’t produce run-of-the-mill mediocrity. “Gringo” is as clueless as its protagonist, so uninvolved in the complexities of its conceit that there’s nothing to take away but the vaguely pro-Drug Enforcement Administration stance it mirthlessly lands on by its conclusion. Once Bill Maher pops up in the final montage as a desperate stab at relevance, the film’s embodiment of smug, senseless social commentary is too comprehensive to not dismiss entirely.
“Gringo” is currently playing at Shattuck Cinemas.