Hollywood’s Eat-the-Rich Satires Should Have Sharper Teeth

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Spoiler alert for plot points about fools and their money.

This was the year that the rich were supposed to get eaten—on film, anyway. Several movies, and at least one TV show, set their sights on the oligarchy pulling the strings of the world, promising brutal, if only imagined, comeuppances that us plebs could cheer on from the pit. The results, alas, have been less than satisfying. 

Back in May, Swedish director Ruben Östlund won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival for Triangle of Sadness, a sprawling, dyspeptic comedy that advertised the good old-fashioned fun of watching zillionaires go to ruin. The film does deliver on that premise, to a point. The central set piece, an operatic spew of vomit and other fluids on a doomed private cruise ship, is grotesquely amusing—even cathartic. As is the sight of a kindly old couple, made rich from arms manufacturing, getting blown up by one of their own products. Östlund’s rage is concentrated and in the right place; it was an ironic (and maybe hypocritical) thrill to watch these fat cat dopes get sloshed around while at a festival as absurdly opulent as Cannes.

The Triangle of Sadness team at Cannes.  

Stephane Cardinale – Corbis/Getty Images

And yet, the third part of Triangle of Sadness begins to pull its punches. Or, rather, starts punching in all directions. The movie dulls itself into a nihilist, South Park–ian shrug, suggesting that everything and everyone turns corrupt eventually, so what good are ideals, or principles, or whatever us sensitive snowflake dorks are always harping on about? I’ve no doubt that Triangle of Sadness despises witless, unfeeling wealth as much as it says it does, but it has disdain for everyone else too. That’s not really the righteous us vs. them fantasy I went looking for. I realize that may be the point, but still. 

Really, the most biting, and viscerally enjoyable, part of the film is its opening, which skewers the ludicrous pretensions of the fashion world. It captures a huddle of model himbos as they stand slack-jawed and cow-eyed, barraged by questions from a flouncy reporter. It’s a lark, but also a familiar target. It may also be the teensiest bit homophobic. Oh, well. It made this gay guy laugh, anyway. 

Maybe particular luxury niches, like fashion or food, are the right avenue into a broader immolation of the ruling class. That, I think, was the intended approach of The Menu, director Mark Mylod’s film about an isolated, ultra-fine-dining restaurant (probably based on the now defunct Fäviken), where the chef and his assistants have a deadly meal prepared. Thousand-dollar tasting menus are a perfect example of the world’s great financial inequities, and the idea—from screenwriters Seth Reiss and Will Tracy—to turn such a milieu into a murderous moral lesson was a sharp one. In execution, though, The Menu falters, it demurs, it turns Ralph Fiennes’s lauded psychopath chef into a mess of personal grudges, when the setup suggests he is going to avenge on behalf of billions of people. 

Fiery as the finale of The Menu may be, it feels awfully narrow, even safe. The film strides up to the idea of bloody rebellion and then gets scared of its deepest implications. So, the movie shrinks itself into a confusing, illogical tale of a specific grudge, held bitterly and unfairly. It entertains the idea of class revenge, but only so far. 

Photo by Eric Zachanowich. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

It may be true that, in the real world, extreme retributional impulses are best kept in check. But why can’t dangerous notions of upheaval at least be explored on film? Hollywood influence is no doubt partly to blame. The people behind The Menu are pretty well-ensconced in the machine (as is this writer to some extent, to be fair) and thus might not want to disrupt their own comfortable surroundings too drastically. And, on a studio level, there is an aversion to controversy—and to insulting one’s social circle.

Three years ago, I went to a screening of Knives Out at a film festival in the Hamptons. The swells in the crowd roared with laughter for the first hour or so of Rian Johnson’s whirring contraption of a whodunit. But when it became clearer that the film was, in its arch way, making a case against inherited family wealth, that laughter conspicuously died down. I’m sure I was projecting a little of that—did it really go as quiet as I remember?—but there was a distinct shift in the room, one that my viewing companion noticed as well. 

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