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The Apprentice Review: Abbasi Plays it Safe

Two businessmen are in a car in the film The Apprentice

Jeremy Strong and Sebastian Stan shine in The Apprentice, but Ali Abbasi’s Trump biopic is neither absurd enough to work as a satire nor in-depth enough to be taken seriously.

Director: Ali Abbasi
Genre: Biographical, Drama
Run Time: 120′
Cannes Premiere: May 20, 2024
Release Date: TBA

When young Donald Trump (Sebastian Stan, of A Different Man) meets defense attorney Roy Cohn (Succession‘s Jeremy Strong) in Ali Abbasi’s The Apprentice, the latter agrees to help him get rid of a racial discrimination case against his father’s housing company, which was accused of turning away potential tenants because they were Black.

Demanding no payment except for his friendship, Cohn takes Trump under his wing; he teaches him everything he knows about business, including his three golden rules. “You have to be willing to do anything to anyone,” states one of said rules, and the young “apprentice” makes it his own, surpassing and even dethroning his mentor by the time the end credits roll. But not before showing us his true colors.

Ali Abbasi’s (Holy Spider) Trump biopic starts strong, with a series of gags that depict the real estate magnate-turned-US President as a pathetic nobody who just-so-happens to be approached by the right person at the right time, and whose ascent to power has more to do with Cohn’s dubious business advice than with his own wit or talent – or even identity. From the moment we first see his face, Trump is depicted as a caricature – someone who stands out like a fish out of water everywhere he goes, and who causes hilarity just by showing up to places. By the time the title of the film appears, in bright yellow, accompanied by the upbeat notes of Brooklyn Dreams’ “Street Man,” we are already in fits of laughter. Sadly, the film never really goes beyond that.

The Apprentice is an entertaining film with plenty of memorable moments, and it’s elevated by three leads who never fail to be convincing. The standout is Jeremy Strong, who manages to be charismatic, scary, ruthless, and even – surprisingly, given the character he plays – worthy of sympathy at various stages of the movie, and who demands our attention in every single scene he’s in. Stan excels as the film’s protagonist, nailing his portrayal of Trump not only in physicality, but also in how inadequate he looks at all times. Maria Bakalova only has a few key scenes, but she is memorable as Ivana Trump too.

A woman with a fur coat greets a man in front of a hotel in the film The Apprentice

Despite the talent both in front of and behind the camera, The Apprentice often feels like a series of skits repeated over and over again. Don’t get me wrong: most of them are funny, and thanks to the acting, soundtrack, and production design, we are never bored throughout. If you’re looking for a lighthearted satirical film, you’ll probably have fun with it, and there’s also a nice reversal of roles by the end, when Trump effectively becomes the person who molded him into himself. It’s just that, knowing Abbasi’s previous work, this had the potential to be all of that while also making a statement about the state of today’s world.

As it is, The Apprentice does delve into politics, but despite the many references to various figures in Trump’s past, its analysis feels surface level at best. On top of this, there are a series of questionable choices, such as that of making someone like Roy Cohn a sympathetic figure, or a depiction of Trump raping his wife Ivana that randomly takes place but is never approached or even hinted at in the rest of the film. And then there’s the fact that this feels much more like Roy Cohn’s story than Donald Trump’s.

Ultimately, it all comes down to how safe the storytelling feels in The Apprentice. Had the film been either twice as exaggerated or much more grounded, we could have had either a truly hilarious fictional story or a grounded political tale about power and legacy. As it is, it tries to be both, and ends up being neither. The Apprentice is a good effort from director Ali Abbasi that partly works, thanks to the talent involved and many funny skits, but don’t expect the same kind of complexity and sophistication as his previous work.

The Apprentice premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on May 20, 2024. StudioCanal will distribute the film in the UK & Ireland.

Holy Spider: Film Review – Loud And Clear Reviews
Ali Abbasi’s film Holy Spider is a brutal, chilling thriller that is full of righteous anger at Iran’s system of misogyny.
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