A film review by Craig J. Koban July 3, 2020

INFAMOUS jj

2020, No MPAA Rating, 100 mins.

Bella Thorne as Arielle  /  Jake Manley as Dean  /  Amber Riley as Elle  /  Michael Sirow as Kyle  /  Marisa Coughlan as Janet  /  Billy Blair as Tim

Written and directed by Joshua Caldwell

INFAMOUS is one of those criminals on the run thrillers that liberally borrows from the DNA of past great films like BONNIE & CLYDE and NATURAL BORN KILLERS without having much in the way of its own voice with the subject matter.  

The premise contained within this Joshua Caldwell written and directed effort is as old of the hills: A pair of young drifter/lovers find themselves committing a robbery spree across America, angering law enforcement, but catching the strange adulation of the general public.  INFAMOUS desperately tries to put a modern day spin on the whole proceedings in making one of the crooks in question a wanna-be social media influencer that's craving Insta-stardom, which is a compelling and potentially fresh angle that one could take with this material.  Unfortunately, INFAMOUS doesn't offer much in the way of intriguing insight into our modern social media obsessed culture and how that's tied into criminal culture.  For the most part, Caldwell's film is regrettably stuck in genre copycat mode and is seemingly incapable of serving up a refreshing new prerogative in a well worn genre. 

The film stars Bella Thorne in (on a positive) a thanklessly dedicated lead performance as Arielle (yes, named after THE LITTLE MERMAID herself), who's one of those obligatory small town white trash sexpots that works most of her days at a go-no-where diner as a waitress.  Her home life is not much better either, seeing as her mother is barely at home and her live-in boyfriend is a bona fide loser.  This Florida native seems glued to her smart phone on a minute-by-minute basis, but she's a no one from no where, leaving her like count on Instagram seriously lacking (granted, a real woman as attractive as Bella Thorne would probably have zero problem getting more than ten likes on a sultry social media post, but I digress).  Hmmmmmm...if there was only some way this young woman could become an instant overnight media sensation? 

Fate steps in with Dean (Jake Manley, who looks here like the love child of a young Brad Pitt and Nick Stahl), who's the resident bad boy grease monkey of the town that - gasp! - has done time (yeah...he's that bad of a boy).  Even though Arielle's BFFs tell her to not come within ten feet of this ex-con, she seems hopelessly drawn to him and becomes more smitten by the day.  Within no time, the pair become an inseparable couple, but Dean realizes that - with his past and parole obligations - he has to keep a very low profile to not get in trouble.  Rather predictably, trouble does find the pair with a violent skirmish one evening with Dean's abusive father, with the pair accidentally killing him in the process (this occurred after Arielle viciously attacked her mother's boyfriend after accusing him of stealing her life's saving that she idiotically kept in a shoe box under her bed).  Realizing that they can't stay in town, the pair flee immediately, but soon realize that they're crazy low on cash.  No problem, as they decide to cloak their faces and rob random convenience stores, which Arielle - in a move not entirely smart while being on the run - live streams the footage to her new social media handles.   

 

 

To Arielle's astonishment, the videos she posts starts to gain a huge cult following, and a thousand views turns into millions and her follower base skyrockets, propelling her to the types of limitless online fame that she once only dreamed of.  Dean, rather logically, thinks her posting of their robberies online is a really, really bad idea, but he oddly continues to allow for her do just that.  As Arielle and Dean's fame rises, so does the former's nerve to try just about anything.  Within no time, their petty robberies gives way to murder, which leads to even more heat being placed on them...but even more fame.  Dean is the pragmatist of the pair and understands that they're on a road to oblivion and probably capture, whereas Arielle has become addicted to likes and follows and can see no end in sight.  Even when the film's plotting takes some questionable detours, it's marginally held together by the decent chemistry between Manley and Thorne.  The actress in particular - an Instagram celeb in her own right in real life - is pretty convincing as her delusional,  social media hungry crook that grows more amoral with her methods as the film progresses.  She has an infectious exuberance here alongside and an increasingly chillingly warped view of right and wrong. 

The thematic irony of having a social media queen play a criminal yearning to be a social media queen aside, the one aspect that truly hurts INFAMOUS compared to, say, BONNIE & CLYDE is that Arielle and Dean (more so with her) are not particularly likeable anti-heroes on the run at all.  Besides succumbing to some decidedly evil and psychotic behavior late in the story, I found little rooting interest in this couple that start to amass a rather large kill count.  They're simply not very sympathetic in any way shape or form.  Arielle especially is so annoyingly self-interested in her unhealthy fixation of being an Internet star that she starts to make some categorically idiotic decisions that most criminals on the run, I assume, would not make.  I guess there's no need to question whether or not live streaming countless armed robberies is a good move for any career thief.  Now, there's a counter argument to be made that we would have no movie if Arielle didn't post their crimes online for the world to see, but it doesn't make for airtight scripting wither.  When it boils right down to it, it's a fairly brainless gimmick used to propel the plot artificially forward, and not much else. 

I'd be willing to forgive all of this if INFAMOUS, as already mentioned, was smarter about what it wanted to say about the intersection of criminal behavior, the extreme violence caused by it, and the insatiable allure of social media.  Mournfully, Caldwell's script is pretty tone deaf and intellectually bankrupt in this pursuit, and most of what it's trying to relay as a cautionary tale about mentally unstable people seeking fame and fortune via unscrupulous means has a pathetic obviousness to it and lacks complex subtlety.  This film's idea of provocative is having its Bonnie and Clyde doppelgangers record their misdeeds...but that's about it.  If INFAMOUS wanted to comment on how the pull of the social media spotlight makes attention seekers do insanely stupid things, then I think there would be more of a film here.  There's one would-be compelling subplot involving a young admirer of Arielle and Dean's (Amber Riley) being held captive by the pair...and not minding it all too much because of just how cool she thinks there are.  Sadly, this character is jettisoned by the bare bones screenplay just as it was developing into something interesting. 

There are other creative missteps that abound here as well, like the film beginning at the end and then flashing us back to past and building up to a climax that take us to the beginning again (movies have to stop using this tired bookend device).  There's also a device of having Arielle break the fourth wall early on to address us in the film that's all but abandoned and rarely used again.  The final robbery in the film's final act is also running on pure Idiot Plot Syndrome and is only put in motion because the people in this film that are orchestrating it...are idiots.  Caldwell, to his credit, creates some visual interest here and there (his film looks both suitably and stylistically grungy and makes great use of location shooting), and Thorne gives a performance that's a far cry more well rounded than what she was obviously given on the written page.  But too much of INFAMOUS is shallow minded and awkwardly handled, and once you begin to realize that there's simply nothing under the hood of this BONNIE & CLYDE for the Twitter and Instagram generation then it becomes a crime thriller that's easy to forget within minutes after watching it.  All throughout INFAMOUS I was constantly thinking that a documentary chronicling Bella Thorne's own rise as a social media influencer would have probably offered more insight into that aspect of contemporary celebrity culture than what this half baked film did. 

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