Monday, August 16, 2021


Writer-director Mike White knows wealth is a poison. The ways privilege infects a mind and soul has been the background hum of his work over the last decade, sometimes bubbling up to the surface. His two-season HBO comedy-drama Enlightened took a corporate exec and watched her spiral as she tried to put her life back together. His Beatriz at Dinner stranded a working-class Mexican-American masseuse at a client’s party where a bloviating racist mogul oozes non-stop Trumpian chatter. His Brad’s Status found a Ben Stiller of anxiety burbling out of a college tour that highlighted an aging man caught between the separation of the very wealthy from the merely well-off. But all this swirling interest in inequality and its effects, so well-attuned to the currents underlying whorls of outrage, finds a refinement and culmination in The White Lotus, a six-hour resort-set miniseries HBO finished airing tonight. (There’s already word it’ll get another season with a new location and new cast; here’s hoping it’ll be just as good.) This work is a reaction to and dissection of the prevailing culture of the time in a way that’s bleakly hilarious, simultaneously sympathetically observed and witheringly, pitilessly critical. It’s a low-simmer melodrama, even a tragedy in some of its dimensions, wrapped in a dazzling social comedy of manners and errors. There’s rot in this here resort, and it’s not the staff. We watch as the wealthy bring all their problems on vacation, and, if they leave with a step up to a better life, it’s often, whether they’re aware of it or not, on the backs of those they view as beneath them. In our economy, what’s trickling down from the one percent is the pitch black toxin of their privilege.

White sets up an ensemble of guests arriving at the eponymous Hawaiian resort, some more likable than others. There’s a Big Tech boss (Connie Britton), her insecure husband (Steve Zahn) and their two near-grown children (Sydney Sweeney and Fred Hechinger) with a friend (Brittany O’Grady). There’s a newlywed real estate heir (Jake Lacy) and wife (Alexandra Daddario). There’s a spacey, needy inscrutably wealthy (Jennifer Coolidge) with her mother’s ashes in tow. They show up hoping to get away from it all, but find they’ve brought their emotional issues and interpersonal melodramas with them. White stages their criss-crossing dilemmas with a great skill for juggling complications in rich juxtapositions that build up momentum and sharply timed shaping to each hour. No one plot thread gets more or less attention than feels exactly right.

Through the course of their days, relationships start to chafe. There’s something about a vacation that lets one really confront a traveling companion’s true self, who they really are when the quotidian day-to-day goes away. White sees how these awful people’s flaws are the reasons for their unhappiness. No wonder vacation is no perfect balm; they are the ones they need to escape. All they’ve done is bring their whirling problems—insecurities, jealousies, inadequacies—to rest among the locals and staff forced to put on a happy face and put up with them. We see the annoyance behind the Fawlty grins of the hotel manger (Murray Bartlett) and empathetic spa manager (Natasha Rothwell). They want to do their jobs well, but these guests sure make it difficult sometimes. There are unmistakable optics to these wealthy white privileged overgrown babies looking to be coddled—throwing tantrums about booking errors, or wandering listlessly in search of a drink, or validation—arriving on the shores of a tropical island with all the presumption of ownership.

It’s underlined by the teen’s friend admitting her college research is on colonialism. (Big topic, the dad shrugs.) The colonizer/colonized relationship not only isn’t dead, it’s here. We meet a native Hawaiian working at the resort (Kekoa Scott Kekumano) who says his family is fighting his place of employment in a land dispute. We see an employee strung along by a time-suck of a guest who dangles the prospect of funding her business idea. We see the hotel manager increasingly frazzled by the unrelenting demands of a blood-boilingly entitled guy’s inability to let a small problem go. This hotel is a paradise of astonishing views, sumptuously photographed in every crashing wave and painterly sunset, and it’s filled with the pettiest, shallowest, tunnel-visioned people. The ensemble is uniformly strong—biting off snappy lines and wallowing in self-loathing or despicable behavior, all the worse when it’s tossed off so casually as to not see the impact, even on their supposed loved ones. They’re too busy rushing off to the next sex, drugs, alcohol, conference call, spa treatment, or scuba training on their to-do list.

White writes the upstairs-downstairs dynamic with aplomb, clearly having great empathy for the genuine pain all parties find themselves in, while allowing the dialogue to sparkle and snap with the most laser-focused incisive satirical detail. He lets the truly loathsome distinguish themselves from the merely troubled with their own words—digging holes for others to fall into. Watch how a well-meaning person accidentally ruins a life; or a high-society mother (Molly Shannon) swoops in chanting about the benefits of money, money, money; or a seemingly good-intentioned offer becomes just another heartbreak when a new distraction comes along. In total, the six hours add up to a compelling piece of work, as hilarious as it is sad, as enraging and it is engaging. Even the score, a howling, near-hyperventilating pseudo-Hawaiian folk song theme that settles into lovely languors of classical music or tribal hymns, captures the uncertain mood. The season builds to a fevered finale in which agonies and ecstasies are approached and sometimes tipped over, and ends in a grand melancholy disappointment and a note of tenuous, fleeting near-hope. White sees the worst in his characters while also seeing the full complexity and context behind these qualities. He loves, and he loathes, sometimes at once. He transcends caricature to find real, complicated portraits of these particular people. He finds moments of grace, and moments of criticism, and moments when characters finally collide in inevitable disagreements. And he understands the greater societal impact their flaws have. He watches as no matter what happens, these guests are free to go take their chaos elsewhere and leave others to pick up the consequences.

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