Less Than You Desire, But More Than You Deserve: Three Films About Rich People

Hollywood’s apparent mistrust of the rich has always been cynical and insincere. Rich people know that an effective way to part poor people with their money is to produce a commodity that also seems to hate rich people. A commodity can’t actually hate anything of course. But the rich people who produce them certainly want us to think it can. And in the past year, when everything other than the most mindless Marvel bullshit struggled at the box office, studio executives are more than happy to lean into this tried-and-true trope.

You see, a necessary part of the studio business schema is the “prestige film.” Not to make money necessarily, but to make the executives feel like they’re still making art. Major studio executives are an insecure type. They know that no matter how many yes-men they surround themselves with, no matter how many oceanside mansions they collect, no matter how many people they’ve made and ruined, there will inevitably come that moment, probably at one of their countless self-congratulatory parties, hundreds of drunk and high pseudo-friends filling the air with their bloodless cackling, they are going to raise up their head from the night’s twenty-seventh line of coke and ask “Wait, does anything I do have meaning?”

Hence the prestige film. The small smattering of works they greenlit over the previous year that attempt to rely on something other than explosions and third-rate fart jokes (because let’s face it, a first-rate fart joke is definitely art) to pull in an audience. These are films that take up what we like to think are meaningful questions. Things like “redemption,” “the existential search for purpose,” and “will our producer be able to attend the next Art Basel without imposter syndrome?”

There was hope that these prestige films would provide the same marker of pride for studios as everything opened up and people started going to movies again this past year. The problem is that the first-release-on-streaming genie cannot be put back in the bottle, particularly with everyone so skint, and the pressure for big studios’ headier fare to now turn a profit was on. Two of their biggest tickets of 2022 were Amsterdam and Babylon. Both banked hard on the idea that the rich as a contingent of conniving, conspiratorial, amoral grifters, both starred Margot Robbie.

Both bombed. Badly. Losing anywhere from fifty to ninety million dollars. Prima facie, this points to two conclusions. The first is that Margot Robbie has somehow gained the reverse Midas touch (bad news for the Barbie movie). The second, no doubt being hawked somewhere by a trust-fund baby with a picture of Mussolini in their studio office drawer, is that maybe their cohort should rein in their gamble on making themselves out to be the enemy.

I would offer two rather different theories. The first is a matter of time and place. Babylon and Amsterdam are both period pieces; their depravity of the moguls and captains of industry are several decades in our rearview. There is an implicit argument therefore that their fuckery is a thing of the past, that we needn’t worry too much, and insofar as we do, it will likely work out in the end because that’s how it’s already happened.

The second will be more controversial: the problem with these movies is that they are too kind to the privileged people calling the shots. Their plots aren’t merciless enough, their catharsis too shallow. Lenin was one hundred percent correct that the rich will sell us the rope we use to hang them, but there’s always a better-constructed rope.

Also, spoiler warnings are for the weak. I won’t tell you whether this piece contains any. Read at your own risk.

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

Critics have heaped armfuls of praise on Glass Onion, and, to be blunt, it deserves every bit. If Rian Johnson was going to make yet another fucking Star Wars film and then not stick around to do Andor, we should all be damned glad he was smart enough leverage the cache into an actual risk from the studios. Mystery hasn’t been much of a staple in the film world since Hitchcock, let alone the even more challenging subgenre of the drawing room mystery. That Johnson was able to get Lionsgate to distribute a film like Knives Out, to cast it with some of the best veteran actors and up-and-comers alike; that would be a feat worth applauding even if the resultant film weren’t any good.

Thankfully, Knives Out was a runaway hit, and Johnson managed to leverage that into a deal with Netflix for not just one but several sequels that turn the charming sleuth Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) into the center of a franchise. King shit.

Glass Onion is an excellent follow-up. Like the other films here it exceeded box office expectations while dodging the bloated budgets of Amsterdam or Babylon. Naturally, turning a profit is far from the most accurate metric of a film’s quality, but the success of films like both Knives Out and Glass Onion do reveal an intelligence in audiences that studios tend to dismiss.

Yes, the cast of Glass Onion – particularly Janelle Monae – is excellent, the writing is whip-smart, and the mystery of who killed who in this group of insincere sycophants – from a Twitch-streaming, self-cucking men’s rights activist to a former model turned fast-fashion sweatshop mogul – is clever and compelling. It also wouldn’t work without the perfect antagonist, which Edward Norton’s tech billionaire and “disrupter” Miles Bron provides perfectly.

“On this one, once I had a tech billionaire at the top of the suspect pyramid, then the type of friends that they would have and the tenor of everything came together,” Johnson told Collider. “Because the intent was to accurately reflect what it’s been like to have our heads in the middle of the cultural sphere for the past six years. It’s a pretty nightmarish kind of carnival, Fellini-esque inflated reality right now.”

While Johnson denied that Bron was intended as a direct parody of Elon Musk, he gets why people see the parallels between them. Not only was Musk’s abject stupidity on everyone’s mind going into the theaters after his blundering purchase of Twitter, the two generally have a lot in common. They explain their success and wealth in vague tech-bro speak because if they were anything approaching honest, they would have to admit to a raft of stolen ideas and broken employees. They try to cultivate an air of cool through lavish spending that just ends up making them look like tryhards. And for all they love to talk about carbon neutrality and ecological sustainability, they are desperately trying to cover up the inevitable havoc entailed by their lifestyles. But then, that’s just about every billionaire with a public persona.

In his book Delightful Murder, Ernest Mandel places the drawing room mysteries that emerged during and after World War I as “classical detective fiction.” Whereas the stories of Sherlock Holmes on the High Victorian streets of a London very much in the flux of industrialization, by the Great War the rule of an industrial bourgeoisie had stabilized and the settings of the mysteries themselves could similarly stabilize. Hence beloved archetype of those witty private detectives whose fields of investigation are the country homes and mansions of the privileged. It was these relatively stable environments, where even the violence and murder at hand feel abstract, that allowed the likes of Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple to approach their evidence with such cool intellect. “In fact,” wrote Mandel,

…it would not be an unreasonable exaggeration to maintain that the real problem of the classical detective novel is not crime at all – and certainly not violence or murder as such. It rather is death and mystery, the latter more than the former. Nor is this accidental. Mystery is the only irrational factor that bourgeois rationality cannot eliminate: the mystery of its own origins, the mystery of its own laws of motion, and most of all the mystery of its own destiny.

Thus Miles Bron, the consummate man of his time, but also many times before him: arrogant, vainglorious, and nowhere near as smart as he thinks he is.

M3GAN

You will hate watching M3GAN. Often you will find yourself squirming in your seat, looking for an excuse to leave the theater. It won’t be out of horror – no, this is a horror movie self-aware enough that it isn’t trying to scare you. Rather, you will see everything coming a mile away, laughing out loud as you watch an artificially intelligent doll gain sentience, consider the most violent option with cold calculation, and then commit it with the same. Again, you will hate every moment of it.

Or at least you should, if you’re a decent human being. Which, let’s be honest, is an open question nowadays. Akela Cooper, who wrote M3GAN, is keenly aware that ultimately all of us are at least a little bit implicated in how soulless our lives have become. So is director Gerard Johnstone, though to their credit both seem less interested in blaming rather than examining with detached dark humor.

The premise is simple, somewhere between Ex Machina and Child’s Play. Cady (Violet McGraw) is in the car with her parents when they are struck by a snowplow, leaving mother and father dead and Cady an orphan. She moves in with her roboticist aunt Gemma (Allison Williams). Gemma is passionate about her work in big tech and, though wanting the best for Cady, doesn’t know the first thing about raising a kid, let alone one with her unprocessed grief. Luckily, she’s just finished the prototype of the titular AI doll, programmed to pair with a child and progressively learn how to identify, socialize, and empathize with, that kid.

You can see where this is going, and that’s the point. The beats of a horror movie unfold in the way that we expect them to – and the way director and writer alike are expecting us to expect – right down to when M3gan tells a doomed bully “this is the part where you run.” Neither Cooper, Johnstone, or indeed M3gan herself, are trying too hard. Nor do they need to. They know their story is only superficially about technology.

Dolls creep so many of us out for a reason, not altogether separate from the anxieties around robots and automation that has run through modernity. In fact the two have been co-constitutive since at least the time that the word “robot” entered the English lexicon in 1920, fostered by Czech writer Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R. The themes of that work are old hat by now: robots built to labor for us, the relationship between work and leisure, the fear that the robotic creation will learn to exist beyond our control. We aren’t scared of dolls or robots per se, but of the idea they just might be better at being human than us. What separates technology that aids in human subjectivity from that which blunts it is ultimately the values of the society that creates. Again, a commodity cannot hate. Unless we want it to…

Williams’ performance carries this movie. She’s certainly mining her own privileged background to animate Gemma, albeit in a different way she did in Get Out, but she isn’t playing her as cynical or unfeeling. Merely oblivious of her creation’s destructive power in the way that those handed everything tend to.

Meanwhile, M3gan the robot-doll is growing progressively creepy, reflected not just in its own changing behavior but in how she changes the behavior of the surrounding humans well before the blood starts to spill. How it instills mistrust, quickness to panic, coldness, and bad faith. There’s a moment when a bewildered child psychiatrist protests that it wasn’t her intent to make Cady cry, a menacing M3gan coolly replies “and yet that’s what happened.” It could have come from any number of comment threads on Twitter or Facebook.

We’re all aware of this on some level. It’s why we’re laughing. Though not every tragedy in M3GAN is so laughable. Williams’ performance is well balanced by young Violet McGraw, whose Cady is deep down struggling with the trauma of losing her parents. When she pouts or throws outright tantrums in response to M3gan being taken away from her, it’s less out of bratty-ness than attachment to the most comforting relationship she has found since the accident.

If there is one complaint to make of this otherwise thoroughly entertaining and sharp film, it is that almost all M3gan’s victims are rich people. It’s satisfying to watch; that’s not the nature of the complaint. But it ultimately isn’t those running these massive tech companies whose lives are ruined or destroyed by these technologies, who are isolated and atomized and eventually ground down.

Otherwise, it’s all laid out very clearly, and without much in the way of subtlety. Frankly, if subtlety worked with these kinds of tales, then we wouldn’t be in a loneliness epidemic, and microworkers in the global south wouldn’t be getting paid pennies to train the algorithms of weaponized drones. The lack of emotional connection isn’t just about all the warm, squishy feelies we get from human touch. It’s a symptom of the end times. M3GAN isn’t being coy with this slow-motion disaster. Far from it, that disaster is literally dancing right in front of us. If only we weren’t so busy trying to copy the dance on TikTok…

The Menu

Some art films take a scalpel to the bourgeois order, carefully dissecting its failings, its inequities, its historical contingencies. Then there those films – many of them in the surrealist and surrealist-adjacent lineages – that opt for a hatchet. Think of Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel, Godard’s Week-end, or the more recent examples of Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You and Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite. The Menu is in this league, and it lives there quite regardless of the filmmakers’ politics (though the fact that producer Adam McKay is a democratic socialist isn’t irrelevant). M3GAN is good, Glass Onion is great, but The Menu is a masterpiece.

The conceit and plot are artfully straightforward. A gaggle of some of society’s most privileged – a movie star, three tech executives, a married couple of old money Connecticut WASPS, etcetera – are invited to the island restaurant of Julian Slowik (brilliantly played by Ralph Fiennes). The menu starts with the kind of hifalutin fare that we’ve come to expect from master chefs who charge $1250 for a night, then slowly draws out the awful things they’ve done (some are worse than others), then tells the diners that they are all going to die. Every course, increasingly theatrical, absurd, and violent, brings them closer to their sticky end.

The theme’s primary fault line is down to this. Slowik’s passion for food has been slowly sapped from him. As he became more accomplished, his artistry required an ever-climbing price point and patronage from wealthy investors. And the wealthy want nothing more than to eat, or, more specifically, to consume. Yes, it is a descent into madness, but a surprisingly class conscious madness. And, frankly, it is a madness that anyone who has worked in the service industry – particularly over these past few years – can relate to.

Anya Taylor-Joy’s escort Margot (this one with better luck than her namesake Robbie) is able to escape because she on some level empathizes with the need for dignity and passion in one’s vocation, and what it is to have it stolen. Not only this, she deserves to escape. While the others, those who only eat, prey and deceive their way toward opulence, who see the expense of an experience as more important than the experience itself, deserve to die. We have been thoroughly convinced of it by the time of the film’s end. And we relish watching them psychologically tortured before finally seeing them burned alive.

It is a slippery prospect to encourage this kind of hate. To slyly wink to the viewer, to whisper to them “You wished them harm from the very beginning, didn’t you? It’s okay, we won’t tell.” It risks a kind of blind, simmering rage that surely eats away at sanity. As it does for Slowik. As it does for his kitchen staff.

“Hate should never be trusted, nor treated as safe, nor celebrated for its own sake,” writes China Mieville. “But, inevitable, it should not be ignored. Nor is it automatically undeserved. Nor, perhaps, can we do without it, not if we are to remain human, in a hateful epoch that pathologises radical hate and encourages outrage fatigue.”

No, commodities cannot hate. They can, however, if molded by the right hands, and with enough simple compassion undergirding them, teach us how to hate in the most human way, to direct our hate at those whose own surfeit is sustained by robbing us of everything that makes us human in the first place. Such films – indeed, such artworks in any medium – are rare. 

Not long after my arrival in Los Angeles, I did what a great many rudderless creatives do and got a job as a cater waiter. The handful of events I worked before thankfully moving on to more stable work included their fair share of Hollywood A-listers, some of whom had done work I respected greatly.

Then there were those whose execrable presence required Herculean restraint. At one award season party, I glanced from my tray of rapidly disappearing hors d’oeuvres to see Jeff Bezos, recently anointed richest person alive, whose Amazon Films was just a couple years later to acquire Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Nobody needs to justify their hatred for this man, whose obscene wealth is made by forcing grown adults to piss in bottles.

For the last few years, I have occasionally wondered what I might have said to Bezos when he snatched his salmon puff from off my tray had I had a bit more spine, or maybe just a bank account balance that could have weathered the risk of losing my job. Something designed not to intimidate necessarily as much as confuse and unsettle, something that captures the deep-seated fear of retribution that everyone with his level of wealth possesses.

Now, after seeing The Menu, the fantasy is complete. I know what I would like to have said to Jeff Bezos: “You will eat less than you desire, but more than you deserve.” Fates willing, someone will one day. And it will make him wet his pants.

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