Saturday, November 19, 2022


In this new Gilded Age, the rich are a fat, juicy target for any satirist. But in fact, the obscenely wealthy hoovering up our resources and headlines are often far more ridiculous than any satirist could invent. It doesn’t take a political cartoonist to balloon their buffoonery; they’re already doing that on their own. Still, it leaves plenty of room for an astute storyteller to put them before us anew and bite with sharp portraiture to draw bitter laughs. That’s the project of The Menu and Triangle of Sadness, two complementary, and similarly half-successful, movies that take service industry jobs as their window into the one-percenters’ transactional heartlessness that’s at the core of so many societal ills. The willingness to diminish a person to their job is a hop, skip, and a jump from not seeing their humanity at all.

Revenge is the dish served in The Menu, in which a high-level chef (Ralph Fiennes) has invited a collection of horrible people to dinner. Each course ramps up the tension as his cultish cooks and servers twist the knife—sometimes literally—by slowly revealing that 1.) the guests are trapped in the restaurant, and 2.) each tiny, artsy, deconstructed course is designed to steadily reveal ever more of their personal foibles and secrets. There’s a smorgasbord of character actors (Janet McTeer! John Leguizamo! Reed Birney! Judith Light! Nicholas Hoult! And more!) for the ensemble as crooked tech bros, apathetic blue bloods, a snooty food critic and her editor, a washed up actor and his embezzling assistant, and a misogynistic foodie realize they’re being led to a slaughter. The one innocent (Anya Taylor-Joy) is a hired date of one of the diners. So at least there’s one person for whom to wish survival. The characters are all thinly sketched, leaning on our prejudices for implied critiques, and that puts a cap on the sick pleasures it could offer.

There’s a lack of specificity in its energy, and its understandings of its characters. It’s like they know they’re posing for a fiction. The chef himself is an unfair Gordon Ramsey riff, what with his employees shouting “Yes, chef!” upon every command as they run around a kitchen and dining area that looks like a cross between Hell’s Kitchen and Masterchef sets. But it’s never clear what his grievance is, other than, as he says late in the picture, that his guests are the kind of people ruining the art of food. The result is a satire that’s pretty clever line to line—one of the screenwriters comes from the world of Late Night talk shows—and works well enough scene by scene. But it doesn’t really add up to much, with a visual style and pace that’s as smoothly stereotypical as its characters. The movie’s ultimately too pleased with its glibness to dig in and mean something of any consequence. I’ve seen lesser Saw sequels with a better sense of social commentary. Shame this one’s so undercooked.

Triangle of Sadness
gets off to a better start because writer-director Ruben Östlund knows how to spin up types and let them crackle with specificities. That’s what makes his best film, Force Majeure, so bleakly funny with its story of a vacationing family’s tensions after a mishap at a ski resort reveals way more about deep character flaws than anyone could’ve anticipated. His The Square does a similar thing with incidents set in a hollowed-out, corporatized, faux-transgressive art world. Sadness has a male model (Harris Dickinson) and his influencer girlfriend (Charlbi Dean) bickering over money before they arrive at a luxury yacht. The middle portion of the movie is dedicated to sharply needling vignettes in which they, or the other insanely privileged, preposterously selfish guests aboard the cruise, are blind to the needs of workers around them. Meanwhile, the smarmy customer service mangers wrangle and cajole their underlings to plaster on those fake smiles and never say “no.” All of these scenes are as precisely observed as they are darkly amusing. By the time Woody Harrelson exits his cabin as the alcoholic leftist captain, the movie’s setting up some pretty obvious ideological collisions, especially as he starts trading Communist critiques with a crooked Russian capitalist’s Thatcherite babbling.

There’s always a sleek intentionality to Östlund’s images, and a stately chill that lets the squirming satire scrambling within them twist all the more uncomfortably. That works right up until it doesn’t in this case. The movie builds up a healthy head of steam on its outrage over inequality. That bursts on a turbulent night that sends these rich folk tumbling through vomit and sewage. That’s a pretty hilarious as a fit of scatological schadenfreude. But it’s the film’s endless final third that slowly unravels anything potent about the early going. Set post-shipwreck on a small tropical island, it thins out its class critiques with a reductive tromping through human nature as a struggle to survive. This doesn’t level the playing field, but reverses it in a reductive, and vaguely condescending way. The result is basically a less astute Lord of the Flies with assholes. And then it concludes—or really just peters out—with a limp joke and some inscrutable ambiguity. That’s the sort of ending that not only is unsatisfying in the moment, but retroactively makes the early going feel weaker, too. It misses the mark.

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