Why all “eat the rich” satire looks the same now
From Glass Onion and The Menu to Triangle of Sadness, right now, there's only one message (ironically) coming out of Hollywood: rich people are bad.
Too many people are eating the rich and it’s getting boring. Not because anti-capitalist art isn’t necessary, but because it’s now too comfortable. If you go to the cinema to see a recent release – Triangle of Sadness, The Menu, Glass Onion – you’re promised an intellectual night out, with literally every film (Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile being the exception) satirising the upper classes. And, well, who can resist a ribbing of moneyed elites at a time when they deserve it the most?
But recently, the quality of anti-capitalist satire has plateaued, as Hollywood once again enters an era of performatively pushing the right buttons without bringing anything audacious to the table. Comedian Chris Morris once said that satire lacking a point of view is simply “doing some kind of exotic display for the court, to be patted on the head by the court”. And that’s precisely where we’re at.
Even the phrase “eat the rich” feels trite. It neatly sums up a tote bag slogan era of anti-capitalism in culture, cutesy shorthand that’s now entirely representative of a watered down, inoffensive type of politics. You could argue that satire born out of this politics is predictable because its targets are predictable: we all know rich people suck and perhaps they don’t necessarily deserve nuance. But the beauty of good satire is in using a scalpel to eviscerate a subject, by having a distinct perspective and striking with precision.
Instead, a lazy, familiar on-screen language is currently being used in film and TV to win righteous brownie points. There was a lot of buzz when Andor, Disney’s latest Star Wars series, dropped in September, for example. The show was praised for its unexpectedly challenging politics, couched in everyone’s shock that a Disney+ series could raise even mildly disruptive questions. But while Andor may be a cut above the rest of Disney+’s roster, the fact that a company worth $203.63 billion feels comfortable parroting anti-capitalist talking points shows that something has gone seriously wrong. Anti-capitalist art is now a genre, one safe enough to be reproduced by the very people it’s supposed to target.
So what’s the point? There’s no valuable political use to this trend of anti-capitalist satire, because these films and TV shows are never trenchant enough to seriously provoke and, frankly, wouldn’t be released if they were. More pressingly, they’re all far too similar. No matter how smart a script might be, if every film is telling you the same thing – rich people bad! – in the same terms, it becomes monotonous.
So far, there’s been little pushback against the homogeneity of anti-capitalist satire because it’s largely agreed that anti-capitalism is (gasp!) a good thing. It’s presumed that something that questions the integrity of a paragon of Menippean satire like The Menu must come from a place of conservatism or absence of radicalism. But in reality, it’s simply exhausting to be repeatedly offered the same juvenile satire that’s never as clever as it thinks it is.
The angle is so obvious that many films are now deliberately burying the lede, withholding the fact they’re yet another anti-rich satire in the hopes you’ll find this surprising and interesting when they finally show their hand. If you haven’t seen Glass Onion yet, you’d probably think it’s an inventive murder mystery, not another two and a half hour film about why Elon Musk sucks (see also: Don’t Look Up). You might expect The Menu to be another Anya Taylor-Joy-led riot, but no, it’s actually a hypnotically incoherent send-up of foodie culture. Why foodie culture is a target for The Menu’s ire is a question the film itself cannot even answer.
Many glowing reviews of The Menu note the predictability of its message and how bluntly it assaults its audience with it over and over again. This feels like a less than minor point, given that “eat the rich” satire is what The Menu smugly sets out to do. It announces each segment of the titular dinner plan with inter-titles, which begin sincerely before gradually spelling out words like “bullshit” in a fancy font – because, you know, it’s satire or something. It’s part of what feels like the MCU-ification of satire, where doing something and then stating aloud what you’ve just done passes for wit.
Good anti-rich satire can still be made today, it’s just unlikely to be found in a major studio blockbuster. There’s few scenes more memorable this year than Triangle of Sadness’ centrepiece, a 15-minute long deluge of vomit and sewage and bile upchucked by a boatload of rich people. It helps that director Ruben Östlund clearly drew on the likes of Spanish-Mexican filmmaker Luis Buñuel for inspiration, instead of whoever Twitter’s main character was when the script was being written. Similarly, Parasite felt so bold in 2019 because it came from outside both the Hollywood and social media bubble. It’s telling that in the years since its Oscar success, Bong Joon-ho’s winning formula has been poorly mimicked by Western media, with little of its intelligence.
There’s also a great deal more clarity in the second season of the small screen’s favourite satire The White Lotus, which is considerably more at ease with itself now that the attention has turned from race to sexual politics. There’s better social commentary to be found in the show’s depiction of a smoother than smooth-brained liberal couple rhapsodising over their love for Ted Lasso than any frame of The Menu. Though it may fall victim to screenwriting predestined to turn into shareable screenshots, The White Lotus is most insightful in its smaller moments. It succeeds as satire by allowing its viewers to spend time with its affluent guests and get a feel for their idiosyncrasies, as opposed to The Menu or Glass Onion’s caricatures, who are only familiar if you’ve spent most of your life online.
The thing is, if satire is universally praised and patted on the head by the court, then it begs the question of whether it’s doing its job. To paraphrase Aristotle, a satire to all is a satire to none, and satire without a purpose or ideological foundation becomes a Rorschach test for the viewer. Major studios have now found a cosy middle ground that feels like the cinematic equivalent of an Instagram infographic; films like Glass Onion and The Menu look pretty and allude to legitimate critiques, but they’re performative and shallow in their criticisms. The reality is that everyone’s now simply doing an exotic display for the court. It’s getting tedious.