You gotta look nice for bankers.
The prize at the center of Jason B. Kohl‘s New Money is fifty thousand dollars. While the characters like to label it an inheritance, their descriptions prove otherwise. It’s more a promise made by a father (Chelcie Ross‘ Boyd Tisdale) to his troubled daughter (Louisa Krause‘s Debbie). If she works hard and avoids getting pregnant, the money is hers at thirty. Because of extenuating circumstances (she’s addicted to Oxycodone after a short stint in nursing school), however, Boyd has every right to renege. His much younger wife (Robin Weigert‘s Rose) does too considering they barely hear from Debbie unless she needs something. But as the latter states during a confrontation: fifty grand isn’t much for them. They could simply hand it over and sever ties, will or not.
I credit Kohl for not letting them, though, since family squabbles usually do come down to stubbornness rather than impossible numbers. Boyd and Rose don’t want Debbie to waste it on pills and inevitably ask for more. And they can’t trust she’ll actually go back to nursing school like she says when she’s done nothing but let them down for years. Do they ask for proof? No. They blindside her with the decision and pass along a rehab brochure. So while you do have to sympathize with the Tisdales’ predicament and respect the decision they’ve made, how they go about doing it is suspect. Does that mean Debbie should kidnap Boyd and steal the money? No. But that’s exactly what she does. And the film subsequently falls apart.
It’s a shame because some interesting complexity is in play. My favorite aspect is the attempt to subvert the “trophy wife” stereotype wherein Rose’s motivations would inherently be to screw her stepdaughter out of money for selfish reasons. That doesn’t seem to be what’s happening, though. Rose loves Boyd very much and is bracing for his worsening condition as dementia takes control. Would it have been easier to hand over the money and spend their final days of clarity together in peace? Sure. But maybe she thought getting Debbie clean first meant inviting her back to enjoy her father’s few moments of lucidity together. That she doesn’t present this possibility, however, ensures Rose comes off vindictive regardless. By not providing the women’s shared animosity context, it defaults to pettiness.
So we have Debbie and her small-time criminal/addict boyfriend Steve (Brendan Sexton III) pushing the envelope to get what they “deserve” on one side while Rose discovers how the familial quality of the situation means there’s little the police can do to help. The former pair therefore squirrels Boyd away in a stranger’s empty summer home, forge some checks, and look to cash them so they can begin their lives anew. They could have simply stolen the checkbook and done this without adding kidnapping and assault charges, but that wouldn’t give cause for Rose to stay involved. His absence is why she hires a private detective—the always-bothered John (Tom Wopat) and his work-allergic intern Chris (David W. Thompson). Eventually they will all have to collide with guns drawn.
Kohl tries escalating tensions with these guns because he’s going for a bleak outcome that’s able to sustain some authentic tragedy along the way. It’s therefore unfortunate that New Money is less a dark thriller as it is a dark comedy. Should we then believe that Steve and Debbie would hurt people despite the whole plan being a “victimless” crime? Or should we absorb the downtrodden vibes of two kids living life in way over their heads that’s being sold instead? It’s tough to know when the action is continuously flipping between these two notions and easy to discover every play for drama undercut by the comedy and every play for laughs overshadowed by the severity of mounting stakes. Rather than suspense, this truth manufactures indifference.
John and Chris on the hunt with weird outtakes of donut eating, poetry debt, and the softest of hardball negotiating plays is where my ambivalence teetered towards frustration because these guys brought nothing to the table besides bodies to be used and discarded. This is in large part because they’re beholden to what Rose discovers, not the other way around. She could have played detective herself and given her obvious grief and worry the care and attention it deserved by making her as important as Debbie. Weigert is up for the task, but so often it seems the reason for this is steeped in her knowing the history between Rose and her stepdaughter that we don’t. We ultimately buy Weigert’s empathy as Rose, but not Rose’s own.
By jumping into the story at its end (Debbie contemplating getting clean right when the gift needed to do so is taken away), we find we can enjoy the performances more than the characters. We believe their emotional investment in isolation, but not in regards to the bigger picture. It doesn’t help that they’re always making decisions whose faults would be exposed with one second of thinking. The script is forever making its characters appear stupider than they are without giving us the room to laugh since we’re constantly pitying them and sometimes mourning them as a result of that stupidity. For instance: there’s a huge portion of dialogue devoted to the hardship of Steve’s life. Rather than work to overcome, however, those circumstances ignite his ruin.
The same can be said for everyone except Boyd lost in his newfound, pure love for Debbie through dementia eyes. Rose’s emotions cajole us onto her side before her words and actions push us away and Debbie’s desire to be better would come across as commendable if she didn’t always stop short of acknowledging her blame. It’s the sort of failed duality that would be great for a straight comedy because we’d be laughing at these characters’ inability to get out of their own way. It just becomes sad without that purpose. Without laugh-out-loud intent, their actions prove empty because we’re left wondering why they’ve made things so avoidably complicated. Because, in the end, their lives prove worse off and nobody learns a single lesson as a result.