This article contains some spoilers for The Menu, Glass Onion, and Triangle of Sadness.
There is something incredibly satisfying about watching the super rich fumble. The internet is joyous whenever celebrities make an ill-judged attempt at earnestness (think the infamous pandemic “Imagine” video), and everyone is ravenous over the almost daily faux pas of a certain social media owning billionaire. It seems screenwriters and filmmakers noticed.
Recently, there has been a slew of films and TV shows that display rich people and all their foibles so audiences can relish in their demise: The White Lotus, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, and Triangle of Sadness, to name but a few. And the recent phenomenon did not occur in a vacuum.
It’s been a tough few years, and things aren’t getting particularly better. While many people have been struggling to get medical care, get clean water, or pay for basic necessities, the rich, as seemingly always, continue to get richer. CEOs still get their bonuses. Large companies are still able to use tax loopholes. Celebrities have crossed picket lines in order to celebrate another year of congratulating themselves and each other. Is it any wonder then that films which do not simply present the rich for us to look at, but lambasts and punishes them, and shows all their ugly bits, have struck such a chord with audiences? Being rude to staff, especially those working at a minimum wage, is gross. Complaining about the hardships of living a fancy life is tacky. And while society seems a long way off from actually holding rich people who do harm accountable, the one percent can at the very least become a spectacle onscreen.
The Menu is yet another film that serves the remorseless super rich on a platter and invites audiences to eat, and its popularity appears to only be growing with the movie now available on HBO Max. Set on a small remote island that houses the exclusive restaurant Hawthorne, its staff, and, most importantly, Chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), the film starts with a who’s who of obnoxious elite guests. There’s three entitled finance bros who assume they are the smartest, coolest guys in every room they walk into; an egotistical food critic who delights in ending careers and her brownnosing editor; a washed-up, name-dropping movie star who is desperate to be relevant again and his long suffering aide; an older wealthy couple where the husband has dark secrets and the wife has seemingly checked out; and a young couple consisting of a man who is a selfish, self-proclaimed foodie who feels too strongly (and wrongly) that he belongs, and girl who does not belong there at all.
Guests are taken to the island on a yacht and served champagne and an amuse bouche for the ride. Once they are there, they are greeted by Elsa (Hong Chau), the no nonsense Maître D and given a tour of the island which is where all of Hawthorne’s food is raised or grown and processed before being served in the most inventive of manners. This is what they are paying for. Food that comes straight from the earth to their plates. Detailed descriptions and private tours on how it happens. Staff who know their names and who are there to seemingly bend to all their whims. Despite this, most of the guests barely register these details. The older couple skipped the tour altogether, having done it many times before. Meanwhile Tyler, the foodie (Nicholas Holt), is impressed but he’s still more concerned with regurgitating everything he has memorized about the place rather than showing any genuine reverence or respect.
Most of the guests are there for the exclusivity of it all. They are there for bragging rights, whether they are in the form of loud announcements to other bro friends, subtly and casually dropped into conversation, or printed in a review to remind other critics that a select few of them are highly favored. For Tyler, this is a poorly judged and self-serving pilgrimage. For his date Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), this is a wrong place, wrong time situation. She wasn’t the girl Tyler originally invited. For Chef Julian, who is detail-focused, she is a fly in the ointment. An anomaly that could potentially ruin all of his carefully formulated plans.
Anomalies are what appear time and time again in these “eat the rich” films to remind the characters that without their money, they are just creatures with soft underbellies like the rest of us. It’s street smart and tough Margot in The Menu. In Glass Onion, it’s the drawling detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), and in Triangle of Sadness it’s mother nature and literal pirates. The moment something or someone arrives who cannot be bought or controlled, or intimidated, the super-rich are at a loss over what to do. In all three films, the anomaly brings chaos, and chaos is a turner of tables. It takes something more than an impressive bank balance to survive in hostile environments and to keep a cool head under pressure.
Margot has this in spades. The moment she realizes Chef Julian’s culinary adventure isn’t what it seems, she bides her time and makes several solid attempts to get herself off the island and home. She won’t be bullied and she won’t be pressured until she is crushed like the rest. Although she has seemingly lived a colorful life, she is portrayed as innocent in contrast to the other guests. The film follows popular and biblical opinion that the super-rich can never be truly innocent.
While all three films include violence, none of them miss the opportunity to poke fun at their characters first. All three provide genuine laughs. The vomit-inducing dinner scene in Triangle Of Sadness is disgusting and hilarious in equal measure. In Glass Onion, Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson) and Claire (Kathryn Hahn) provide scene-stealing laughs, but the most tear-inducing moment comes from Daniel Craig as Blanc rants at ridiculous billionaire Miles (Ed Norton), who has more money than sense and makes every stupid move in the book, much to Blanc’s chagrin.
In The Menu, it’s Elsa (Chau) and the unnamed movie star (John Leguizamo) who deliver most of the funny bits; Leguizamo with his usual flare and Chau with an inscrutable straightface that makes her all the funnier (or menacing). However, some of the funniest moments come unexpectedly from Chef Julian himself. Whether it’s the devastating and withering comments he makes to Tyler after he asks him to prepare a dish for the sole purpose of humiliating him, or the venom with which he calls Ted (Paul Adelstein), editor of food critic Lillian Bloom (Judith Light), a buttress; an insult so unexpected it elicited violent laughter from the audience.
Why is it so satisfying to see the elite humbled? Firstly, it’s the assumption that being rich automatically endows one with smarts and morality, when in reality, the opposite is too often true. Only being surrounded by yes men and like-minded (and like-moneyed) people protects against any criticism or resistance of any kind. In Triangle of Sadness, a rich Russian woman insists every member of staff on the luxury yacht goes for a swim via the water slide, despite how inconvenient it is for everybody. Another woman is determined to have the sails of the ship washed, despite the fact that there are no sails to speak of, and to placate her, the captain agrees.
Both women view their requests as more than reasonable, altruistic even. But even at the hint of a suggestion that they’re wrong, they’ll at best stare blank-faced and confused. At worst, they’ll get agitated and prepare to wield all the power they have at their disposal.
In Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion, Miles lives on a private island in his sprawling and gaudy house with a literal glass onion structure perched on top. For all his money, he has certainly not been able to buy taste. Considering every idiotic move he makes, from the dock that doesn’t float at high tide to the upside down Rothko painting, to fuelling the whole island with an unstable element, Miles’ only talents seem to be lying, stealing, self-promotion, and being an imbecile. When the cracks start to show, he is literally incapable of thinking his way out of trouble, although he has convinced the world he is a genius. He’s a charlatan in billionaire’s clothing.
Chef Julian, the creator of the titular menu in his movie, has grown tired of self-important sycophants and tired of himself and what he’s come to represent. Almost none of the guests are at Hawthorne because they are passionate about the food he creates. The elderly couple (played by Judith Light and Reed Birney) who have visited Hawthorne several times cannot remember a single dish they have eaten there. The finance bros (played perfectly by Arturo Castro, Mark St. Cyr and Rob Yang) work for an angel investor in Hawthorne, and therefore believe they are connected and untouchable. When they are repeatedly told no, they are flummoxed; when their corruption is laid out in front of them, their flummoxing quickly turns into bewilderment. The movie star claims to know Chef Julian personally, a claim he has to hastily retract when things start going awry.
The guests’ demise is so delicious because despite having everything, these are people who are never content, never satisfied. Their money does not seem to afford them kindness or generosity. They are so rich that they have transcended caring about anyone or anything beyond themselves. Anyone who has waited on the wealthy knows that there is a lot of tongue-biting involved in the face of often impossible demands. What regular person would not derive pleasure from seeing them having to finally pay a due they cannot afford? Or seeing their ridiculousness so hilariously highlighted?
Unlike Margot, who senses something is wrong from the start, the other guests are so used to ignoring the world immediately outside of themselves, they can’t feel the water start to boil in the proverbial pot they’re sitting in. Though unlike the frog in the story, these people have hopped into the pot themselves and neglected to notice the fire. In this day and age, it is cathartic to see people who have it all have the rug pulled out from under them, and knowing it could have all been avoided by simply being better, more thoughtful people.
Chef Julian is unmoved by their pleas and is determined to see that their desperation for proximity to his greatness costs them everything. In a world full of selfish “elites,” everybody loses. Ironically, being better people would have been free, or at the very least, tax deductible.