We have reached an awkward point in pop culture when roasting the rich on-screen, or even simply attaching the “obscenely” descriptor to this elite segment of the population, is considered a satisfying enough rebuke of corrupt capitalism that favors white people above all others. Add a kooky murder, an A-list cast, and bone-dry humor and you might even have yourself a blockbuster.
That was certainly the feeling after attending the world premieres of “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” and “The Menu” last week at the Toronto International Film Festival.
“Glass Onion” is director Rian Johnson’s latest in his beloved whodunit series, this time centering a group of rich and aloof people gathered at a mansion in Greece. “The Menu” is director Mark Mylod’s latest set at an uber-pretentious upscale restaurant that has attracted the wealthy and entitled.
Mere moments after the lights went down in each theater showing, you could hear the audience laugh uproariously during all the appropriate scenes.
That includes in “Glass Onion” when a certain multi-gazillionaire (Edward Norton) waves off the fact that he has a luxury car just sitting inside of his manor because, you know, they’re on an island and there’s nowhere to really drive.
Or when a famous-for-being-famous type (Kate Hudson) dismisses real concern over hosting a party filled with randos in her home during a pandemic. “They’re in my pod,” she says.
That same type of audience engagement is true for “The Menu,” especially when a flaunty foodie (Nicholas Hoult) is all but fully aroused over a breadless plate of bread. Or when a table of finance bros (Rob Yang, Arturo Castro and Mark St. Cyr) try to use their power to demand more substantial meals and are brutally rebuffed by an enigmatic culinary tyrant (Hong Chau).
And for what it’s worth, both “Glass Onion” and “The Menu” are wickedly entertaining. They’re the kind of fun, occasionally edge-of-your-seat movies that make paying for overpriced popcorn and candy at the theater actually worth it. There’s even a tasty excitement that comes from the expectation that these rich characters will surely get some sort of comeuppance.
But as superior eat-the-rich films have shown us, we should also come to understand — and maybe even properly detest — the landscape that propped them up in the first place. And why these characters’ foils (played by Janelle Monáe and Anya Taylor-Joy in “Glass Onion” and “The Menu,” respectively) feel more like stand-ins for the audience with no voices of their own.
It makes for a profoundly empty viewing experience.
That’s a shame. Because when done right, eat-the-rich films can be thrilling to watch as well as offer thoughtful commentary as they castigate the wealthy for the despicable ways they’ve thrived under capitalism and show the unscrupulous ways the have-nots feel compelled to react.
For instance, films like “The Purge” and “Parasite” challenge the moral compasses of the people who live inside both ends of these stories just as much as they do their audiences’. Others like “Hustlers” and “Ready or Not” leave little room for debate as they seat us right in the chairs of those that have been impacted by greed and opulence.
So, we root for them to wipe the floor clean with the blood of the well-to-do, or at the very least deplete their bank accounts. Because we’re right there with them.
The problem with “Glass Onion” and “The Menu” is that they have no points of view. Sure, you could project themes onto the material, but it would be pure projection. Like the idea that Andi (Monáe), the only Black woman among a group of rich pricks — successful in her own right — might have a greater reason to want to burn the whole system down or even commit homicide.
Or the thought that the moneyed guests in “The Menu” represent the people who do dirt in their daily lives yet feel that they deserve to treat themselves to pompous food they don’t even like simply so that they can say they experienced something others can’t even dream of. And how that abhorrence makes them easy prey for a chef (Ralph Fiennes) with his own vengeful agenda.
But none of that is forthright in the story, even though there are multiple opportunities for exposition. That’s just a viewer applying her own worldview onto an otherwise hollow, though delightfully demented, big-screen narrative.
In other words, trying to give “The Menu” and “Glass Onion” more weight than the filmmakers obviously ever considered. Perhaps that is due to their own experience with class and race in a system that by default favors rich white men. Can you incisively eat the rich if you don’t really know what that entails — or what could be the systemic motives?
Put more bluntly: Would either of these directors be interested in making an eat-the-rich film that could end with them on a plate too?
Only time can tell. Johnson certainly got closer to this with the original “Knives Out” film in 2019, which skewers the wealthy through the role of an immigrant nurse. And to his credit, Mylod has helmed episodes of “Succession,” which doesn’t exactly devour the rich, but it definitely paints an ugly picture of them.
But “Glass Onion” and “The Menu” don’t give us anything to chew on. They’re the type of entertainment that is endlessly rewatchable, largely because they’re unchallenging and safe. It’s easy to point and laugh at the rich, or feel a sense of vindication when they’re successfully digested in the films. But you still walk away feeling hungry.
“The Menu” and Netflix’s “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” premiered at the 2022 Toronto Film Festival and will be released on Nov. 18 and Dec. 23, respectively.