Claire is an architect, mother, and recovering Oxy addict attempting to balance her life. Tyrone is a college professor who researches new medicines for a major conglomerate. Jake is a DEA agent posing as a drug trafficker who wants to bring down two major smuggling rings. Bill is a high-powered executive eager to push through his allegedly non-addictive new painkiller. Connected both loosely — often, very loosely — and sometimes inconceivably, by the raging opioid epidemic, each of the characters in Nicholas Jarecki’s scattered “Crisis” is at the mercy of appetites they can’t control. Taking an apparent nod from “Traffic,” though without its finesse or sprightliness, Jarecki attempts to weave together a star-packed, multi-pronged narrative to shine a light on the nation-spanning opioid crisis, but emerges with only a muddled, curiously restrained final product.
Jarecki’s long-awaited follow-up to his similarly dry — but still entertaining and informative — 2012 narrative debut, “Arbitrage,” certainly has good intentions. The opioid crisis and the many lives it has upended and ruined is fertile ground for cinematic exploration, all the better to illuminate tragic stories for examination and reflection. And for Jarecki, who also wrote the film’s script, the choice to include so many different sorts of stories related to the epidemic is telling: here, it seems, is a problem that has touched all sorts of people in all kinds of ways. Surely, there is a movie here.
Perhaps the problem is that there’s simply too much movie here, and Jarecki’s resistance to ably weaving together his many disparate threads until much later (and, in some cases, if at all) signals an inability to come to terms with the wide tapestry he’s wrought. “Crisis” would likely have been more successful — and more clear-eyed — had Jarecki turned his focus more keenly on just one of his threads. Instead, the sense is that “Crisis” is too elementally weak to rely on any one part, and Jarecki opts to tick drily back and forth between them, all the better to obscure how limply this all comes together.
Still, even the more familiar of the narratives, like the Gary Oldman-starring sections revolving around Dr. Tyrone Brower, a college professor horrified to discover the drugs he’s paid to investigate are very bad indeed, hold a spark. Dr. Brower’s bits smack of something like “Inside Man” or “Michael Clayton,” albeit with the temperature turned way down, but they at least follow a more thorny and compelling narrative. Jarecki isn’t guilty or moralizing, but it’s the Dr. Brower-centric sequences that are the most knotted and interesting.
As Dr. Brower realizes just what sorts of people he’s come up against (namely, Luke Evans playing a major baddie with little dimension), his entire life crumbles around him. Some of the upheavals may feel eye-rollingly timely — sexual harassment claim, why not? — but at least they feel part of the real world. Dr. Brower at least struggles with real emotions.
Other segments aren’t quite so lucky. Armie Hammer, recently in the news for his own kind of crisis, needn’t despair over any potential blowback on Jarecki’s film for his involvement: the actor is so dry and flat as an undercover DEA agent that most people will likely forget he’s in the film even before it’s ended. Saddled with a convoluted story — shady drug clinics, bad doctors, a whole lot of weird attitudes toward the Armenian bad guys pushing the drugs, and plenty about Canada’s own drug market — and the most basic of motivations, Hammer’s section is the least involving and the most bizarre.
Elsewhere, Evangeline Lilly carries a similarly strange segment, but at least she’s able to inject her thin role with real emotion. As Claire, an architect/mother/recovering addict, Lilly gets to put a new face on America’s drug epidemic, although Jarecki chooses to veer almost immediately away from it (and Lilly’s solid work as Claire, established early on as one of the film’s best performances), using it as a strange in-road to a very different kind of addict story, one that involves Claire’s teenage son and pushes Claire into awkward avenger territory, the sort of thing that is somehow at odds with a film that’s already at odds with itself.
By the time Jarecki attempts to link together these disparate stories, the energy has gone so far down that only baseline empathy seems possible. These stories are all tragic and sad and complex, and more than worthy of innumerable explorations. Many of them are even present in this film, even if nothing about them satisfies. Consider this one a crisis of its own: a well-meaning look at a world that never goes deeper than the surface.
Quiver Distribution will release “Crisis” in select theaters on Friday, February 26, with a VOD release to follow.