Photo: FX

Some actors who have served as male leads in Danny Boyle movies over the years include Ewan McGregor, Cillian Murphy, Leonardo DiCaprio, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, and James Franco. I don’t bring this to run down the charisma of Harris Dickinson, who is not the only lead of Trust, but in “La Dolce Vita” serves as the kind of focal point that brings to mind several past Boyle sorta-heroes (particularly the ones played by McGregor and DiCaprio). Rather, it’s an instructive comparison because of how unfair it is. Dickinson is not a bad actor, and in fact is very convincing in the role of John Paul Getty III, just one more particularly feckless heir to the fortune of a fractured, dysfunctional family. But as written, Paul Getty is kind of a bore. He’s not incapable of creating empathy for his hippy-dippy drifting through Rome and wherever else and his lousy family life, but he’s not an especially interesting guy, which leans—perhaps to an, again, unfair degree—on an actor’s charisma to make him compelling, especially in an episode where he’s in the spotlight.

Dickinson, talented as he may be (and luxuriously angelic as his head of hair is, as pointed out by his on-screen mom Hilary Swank), doesn’t quite have the stuff that makes these particular antics compelling on a character level. “La Dolca Vita” fills in some gaps created by the first two episodes of the series, mostly following Paul before his visit to the Getty estate in the first episode and after the disappearance dealt with during the second. Technically, this episode is something of a marvel, the way it flips around in time, most notably when he’s riding in a car trunk, peering out through a single light source as quick-cut flashbacks actually flash at him, and us, in a decidedly Boyle-like fashion.

It takes a while for the episode to fully explain what Paul is doing in that trunk, even beyond the point where it feels like a sufficient explanation has been provided. This is Boyle’s last episode for the foreseeable future (he didn’t direct episodes four through six, and presumably he’s not coming back), and he goes out with what feels like the most straight-up Danny Boyle narrative and style the show has provided so far. “La Dolce Vita” opens on a delirious sequence of drugs and makeout sessions flowing freely into protests and riots, as Paul careens around the city heedlessly.

We learn later that Berto (Giuseppe Battiston), the restaurateur seen in the previous episode, has been providing not just a cute meals-for-paintings exchange for Paul and his girlfriend Martine (Laura Bellini), Martine’s sister, and their lowlife friend, but also cocaine, with Paul unaware that his line of implied Getty credit has served as payment. That’s the source of the $6,000 he owes to bad people, which is in turn the source of his eventual plan with Berto to stage his own kidnapping and get everyone plenty of money.

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But Paul is too much of an antsy dumbass to wait around pretending to be a kidnap victim, so he escapes his fake-but-necessary imprisonment—hence the solo night on the town and subsequent re-kidnapping we’ve already seen in previous episodes, and seen investigated by Fletcher Chace. Berto, presumably disgusted with the trouble this is causing him, seems to basically sell the kidnapping job to someone else, to a far more ruthless guy called Primo (Luca Marinelli), seen early in the episode killing several people with chilling casualness in a robbery that goes from bad to worse.

This episode features relatively few of the most familiar faces from previous episodes: No Donald Sutherland, no Brendan Fraser, little Hilary Swank. It’s an effective immersion into Paul’s world, and introduces and develops characters from this world swiftly and brutally, with Berto in particular zipping from semi-nice guy to sap ditched at a club to angry and dangerous to desperate and hunted all within the space of an hour, all without causing much whiplash.

But at the center of this business is Dickinson, and there’s not much to his character besides his revelation of just how much of a fuck-up he is, in that he comes up with a real fuck-up’s idea of a moneymaking scheme and then summarily fucks it up worse than anyone else can, before anyone else can. (Maybe it’s the parent in me that sees an empty room with a mattress and instructions not to leave and thinks, boy, a couple of long, long naps look pretty good about now.) It doesn’t help that the show feels a little murky about the nature of Paul’s addictions; he hasn’t really been portrayed as an addict so much as a free-love, responsibility-averse hedonist, dedicated to his equally dull partner in crime Martine, but he’s jonesing pretty bad after just a little bit of time in fake solitary confinement.

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Those details might not matter as much if Dickinson was setting off some kind of Ewan McGregor-level charisma bomb in this role. Instead, he speaks with a low and vaguely Californian drone that sounds slow—not dumb, mind you, but like he’s actually saying his lines a beat or two slower than necessary. Again, it’s perfectly fitting for Paul as a character, but it doesn’t make him especially interesting to watch except as a body in Boyle’s amped-up motion. And there is a lot of motion in “La Dolce Vita.” If the previous episode felt like Boyle stretching some of his filmmaking muscles with techniques that were typically bold but not directly connected to many of his previous films, this one has plenty of Trainspotting/The Beach energy. That’s not a bad thing; moment for moment, it’s probably the most suspenseful and exciting installment yet.

But it doesn’t have much depth of character at its center. Another actor might have made Paul’s fake-kidnapping restlessness, and real-kidnapping resignation (the moment where he bursts out of the sunflower fields to find Primo nonchalantly waiting for him is terrific) more mordantly amusing, or tragic, or both. Instead, he feels like a very busy piece on a big, messy chessboard.

Stray observations:

  • All The Money watch: So Boyle’s time as director of this enterprise is over, which makes me more comfortable definitively saying that I think Boyle could have made a better version of All The Money In The World than Ridley Scott. It’s kind of neither here nor there, but so far Trust has very much been the type of series that hasn’t 100% convinced me that it’s a better idea than just doing a film version—even though in this case the film version wasn’t so great, and also future Trust seasons will move beyond the scope of that film. Still, the best bits of these first three episodes are so much better than the best bits of the Scott movie that it’s hard not to think about a conservation of resources where Boyle just made All The Money In The World into a good movie instead of a maybe-good 10-hour TV show.
  • In fact, isn’t Danny Boyle just kind of a better Ridley Scott in general? Search your feelings; you know it to be true.
  • This episode lands on a direct interpretation of this case, that Paul Getty did, in fact, start out faking his kidnapping, even if it became real later. That was hinted at earlier (and was treated very much as rumor by the Scott film) but by making the show’s version of the backstory clear, it does feel like these first three episodes complete a mini-arc of sorts.
  • I do wonder if Paul Getty just isn’t as good of a role as filmmakers seem to think it is. Charlie Plummer (no relation to his on-screen grandfather Christopher) played Paul in the Ridley Scott movie, and he wasn’t especially memorable in the part. Then I saw him this weekend in Lean On Pete (going by the recommendation of our own A.A. Dowd), and he’s excellent. Here’s hoping I’m saying the same thing about Harris Dickinson someday (or if I catch up with Beach Rats, or even, fingers crossed, after a few more episodes of Trust).

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