While HBO's "Vinyl" divides audiences over the authenticity of its depiction of a drug-fueled, hedonistic '70s music scene, the slick British import "Kill Your Friends" arrives to paint the late '90s record business in the U.K. as an "American Psycho"-style breeding ground for murderous sociopaths. But the chilly gleam of bad behavior and acrid humor, as flicked on by screenwriter John Niven (adapting his own semi-autobiographical novel) and hammered into being by director Owen Harris, is a dim light, indeed, devoid of insight or wit.
Nicholas Hoult slithers as coldly ambitious A&R man Steven Stelfox, dismissive of taste and talent in the pursuit of the next flashy hit — musical and/or pharmaceutical — that will keep him ascending the label ladder at a time when Britpop is hitting a chart-topping peak. In the rush to sign acts (a Swedish indie band, a German dance music producer, a quarreling girl group) between orgies of gratification and Scorsese-lifted monologues of misanthropic invective, Stelfox's attitude toward those in his path turns homicidal.
But the movie — glibly admiring of its hero's awfulness — is tone-deaf about genuine satire, assuming anything ugly (insults, nihilism, bloody violence) qualifies as sharp cultural commentary as long as the unceasingly venal, knowing narration explains it all for us. Watching "Kill Your Friends" unfold is not dissimilar to being at a party where someone's clever one-liner lulls you into a conversation that reveals a bitterly immature, dismissively one-note lout, after which you're trapped.
It's slickly packaged biliousness, flecked with the era's music (Chemical Brothers, Blur) and worthy actors (James Corden as a coke-addicted colleague, Tom Riley as a more measured A&R rival) to whisk you along its emptily vulgar groove. By the end, you may clamor for the cheesy, vivacious hollowness of the Spice Girls — one of the movie's easy targets — to wash out the adolescent cynicism of "Kill Your Friends."
'Kill Your Friends'
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes
Playing: Arena Cinema Hollywood