Nearly three years ago, “Parasite” swept awards season. Bong Joon-ho’s sardonic masterpiece followed the Kim family, a tribe of basement-dwelling con artists who wormed their way into a wealthy household and wound up with blood on their hands. Perhaps as a direct result, we now find ourselves in an awards season glutted with eat-the-rich narratives. That might be fun — even revolutionary — if these films had more to offer than shallow drollery.
Ruben Östlund’s “Triangle of Sadness,” Mark Mylod’s “The Menu” and Rian Johnson’s “Glass Onion” are all stacked with prime talent and featured among this year’s For Your Consideration fodder, and all three films lampoon the garishly wealthy. But where “Parasite” used fleshed-out commonfolk as foils to the heinous elite, today’s films are more interested in making a spectacle of wealth than they are in actually developing their working class heroes.
“Glass Onion” is perhaps the worst offender, if only because it pales so drastically in comparison to its predecessor, Johnson’s 2019 whodunit hit “Knives Out.” Where “Knives Out” followed an immigrant nurse named Marta (Ana de Armas) as she was sucked into a cartoonishly rich family’s homicidal antics, “Glass Onion” centers on the flamboyant detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). Blanc, who helped Marta out of a pickle in the first film, is unquestionably delightful. This is not your average gumshoe — Blanc is an occasionally bumbling clotheshorse who sounds like Foghorn Leghorn.
But he’s hardly an everyman: “Glass Onion” introduces him relaxing in his beautiful terrace apartment, at the tail end of a Zoom session with Natasha Lyonne, Stephen Sondheim, Angela Lansbury and Kareem Abdul-Jabar. When a third act twist finally throws a plebe into the film’s narrative, it’s far too little too late. We’ve spent most of the film watching Blanc side-eye the upper crust, which feels a bit like watching a cheetah mock a pack of leopards.
Though it attempts much more nuance, “Triangle of Sadness” meets similar pitfalls. The film most closely follows Carl (Harris Dickinson, “Beach Rats”) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean, “Black Lightning”), two models/influencers who are living an Instagram-friendly sham. They’re together because they make a good-looking couple, not because they’re actually in love. Unlike their fat-cat shipmates, they don’t seem to have much money of their own, though their looks keep them awash in luxury. They end up on the film’s ill-fated cruise because a company offered it to them for free.
They project wealth and power to their social media followers, but they are the film’s most pitiable characters. Östlund rather unsubtly drives this point home when, in later scenes, Carl becomes a kept boy to Abigail (Dolly de Leon, “Unconditional”), a member of the ship’s housekeeping staff whose official title was, apparently, “toilet manager.”
Östlund’s decision to humanize Carl (and, to some extent, Yaya) above every other character is as interesting as it is vexing. Sure, he is harmed by the looks-obsessed culture from which he also benefits. (The title phrase, “triangle of sadness,” is spoken aloud by a casting agent who derides his lack of Botox.) It is deeply sad that he has nothing to offer anyone beyond his body. But it is bizarre to see the film paint Abigail with the same broad, sociopathic brush as the fashion industry.
Of course, in the real world, one’s class does not inherently dictate their morality, but this is Ruben Östlund’s world, where a Russian fertilizer tycoon pulls the jewels off of his wife’s half-naked, vomit-and-sewage-covered corpse. If Abigail is as conniving as her wealthy overlords, it would be nice to at least know why.
“The Menu” is the only one of these three films to sport a working-class protagonist, but that doesn’t make it any more successful. A pack of shady, obscenely wealthy foodies trot out to the private island of the renowned Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), where he treats them to a night of molecular gastronomy and murder. Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) throws a wrench into his plan as the unexpected guest of Tyler (Nicholas Hoult). Slowik immediately senses that Margot is an everyman — just like he used to be — and cryptically tries to give her a way out of his vengeance plot.
Though we learn smatterings of Margot’s backstory as the skimpy plot develops, who she is doesn’t matter so much as what the puppeteering Slowik thinks of her. The attention-grabbing stuff here isn’t coming from Margot. “The Menu,” directed by “Succession” helmer Mark Mylod and co-written by The Onion scribes Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, mainly entertains because Slowik is putting on such a show for the simpering guests he supposedly hates.
It’s more than a little ironic to see such shallow challenges of upper-class exploitation mounted over and over again during awards season. As we all prepare to dissect which movie stars were the best dressed or worst behaved, as critics like me contemplate what to do with yet another round of studio freebies, it’s only fitting that we not look too closely at the tycoons around which it all revolves.
In these films, excess is not so much monstrous as it is just plain silly. And if you’re gunning for an Oscar or the Palme d’Or, that toothless take is less likely to offend your peers.