The joke about "Easy Money," grim as it is, can be found in just how hard life gets while pursuing it.
JW (Joel Kinnaman), a Swedish business school student, envies his rich friends and does his best, with limited means, to emulate them: How they speak, how they comport themselves, and (most crucially) how they dress. (In one scene, JW snips the buttons off a cheap shirt and replaces then with chunkier, more fashionable buttons.)
He supplements his faked fashion with equally fake stories of his glamorous parents, who might be diplomats in India with one telling but then have different occupations and addresses altogether in a subsequent recounting. He also supplements his wallet by driving a gypsy cab, which brings him into contact with shady underworld characters like Abdulkarim (Mahmut Suvakci) and, at Abdulkarim’s behest, Jorge (Matias Padin Varela), a Spanish immigrant with a drug-running family in Germany who is crucial to a scheme to import millions of euros in cocaine into Sweden.
Money that serious, and that illicit, is sure to attract some unsavory attention. Enter Radovan (Dejan Cukic), a Serbian immigrant and a major player in the Serb Mafia, who sics a tough enforcer named Mrado (Dragomir Mrsic) onto Jorge--as well as onto Jorge’s pregnant sister and her husband.
Among JW’s friends is a young man whose father’s bank is about to go under. With a few million from investors like Abdulkarim, the bank can be rehabilitated and, with the cooperation of the right people, it can serve as a money-laundering operation. Once the deal is put together, JW expects to become a multi-millionaire in very short order.
Things don’t go quite according to plan, however, and it’s not just because the Serbs are unwilling to stand back and let the goods and the cash flow to someone else’s benefit. As a war between rival underworld groups ignites, JW begins hearing unsettling tidbits from both sides about how non-essential he’s become, and how little reward he can expect to reap now that he’s done his bit. In turn, JW becomes a monkey wrench ready to jam up the works for his treacherous partners in crime... until things get even more complicated, and the whole situation spins out of any semblance of control.
Director Daniel Espinosa creates a moody, jagged, and tightly wound film from Jens Lapidus’ intense, suspenseful screenplay (based on Lapidus’ own novel). Tides of fear, rage, and greed sweep through the cast of characters, propelling them on disastrous collision courses but also throwing them into wider, more illuminated orbits; Mrado, for example, starts out as nothing more than a thug, but transforms into a complex man, a father looking out for his daughter while navigating his way through the always-shifting loyalties and priorities of the gangsters for whom he works.
JW, meantime, transforms into nothing but himself: Layer by layer, the character passes from shallow to overwhelmed to, eventually, tragically hobbled by events from his past. Easy money isn’t easy at all; anyone who’s seen a few mob movies knows this. But neither does wealth provide the kind of safety and insulation that deeply anxious people hope for. In the case of this admirable film, the title doesn’t say it all, but rather points to a whole narrative cosmos of meanings and possibilities. (The Swedish title is "Snabba Cash," which is also appealing, though for much different reasons.)
Money can’t buy you happiness, but in this case the price of a ticket will buy you a couple of hours of relentlessly involving, desperate people and the gunplay, fire bombings, and paranoia that they get up to for the sake of money and the happiness they only imagine it will bring them.