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What Profit All the Labor Here? Part I

What Profit All the Labor Here? Part I

A survey of 2022 films exposes the rifts in American and European economic anxiety.

The most expected element of October’s throwback romcom Ticket to Paradise is not the evergreen chemistry between stars Julia Roberts and George Clooney as a divorced couple forced to join forces on a trip to Bali as they scheme to stop their type-A daughter (Kaitlyn Dever) when she announces her surprise engagement. It’s the film’s willful evasion of the economic dynamics central to its tropical locale. Within the premise, a movie exists that would attract a star like Clooney who really hasn’t had to work in years and, in the rare instances he does, directs singular mass-audience repellent reflective of his own political bent like his Oscar-darling valentine to Edward R. Murrow, Good Night and Good Luck (2005), or the Hulu miniseries adaptation of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (2019).

But in the world of Paradise, the obvious disparities between the economic realities of Bali and the jetsetting lifestyle of West Coast architect Clooney and art gallery owner Roberts seem lost amid the duo’s movie star facade. In a better genre entry like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), the material would have fun at the expense of the blowhard upper-middle classers, castigating them for their pie-in-the-sky liberal elitism. But in Paradise, such obvious concerns as a designer daughter throwing her perfectly planned life away in a developing nation become strictly personal as Clooney and Roberts beg their offspring not to copy their own capricious mistake of marrying young (predictably, the stars spend the movie rekindling their long-dormant love).

Any doubts Clooney’s David Cotton has about his daughter’s seaweed-farming fiancée dissipate as soon as he finds out that young Gede (Maxime Bouttier) has helped orchestrate a Whole Foods contract for the family business. What could have been a moment of a The West Wing style progressive questioning his own erroneous embrace of identity politics ends up as merely a punchline. There’s simply no room for an indictment of classism and racial politics vital to the pinnacle of the culture industry in which the Cottons reside.

Of course, neocolonial meditations aren’t a requirement of contemporary romantic comedy, but such an incongruence between actors as activists’ public personas and their artistic output serves as a revealing tell about the disconnect so responsible for the erosion of the movie star’s cultural clout. Beyond his role in Paradise, Clooney’s other most prominent moment of the past two years was the viral red carpet interview he did in October 2021 advocating for destroying the livelihoods of any working American unwilling to submit to compulsory vaccination. “I think every company should do it. Listen, I don't care. To me, it's really simple,” a tux-clad Clooney said while walking a red carpet before going home to a warm bed he shares with an internationally famous human rights attorney.

While it isn’t too much to expect an artist of Clooney’s stature to wade into discourse on economic divides with at least an attempt at understanding the wide swath of humanity from which he has alienated himself, Americans have never been particularly adept at identifying class markers–much less situating themselves within them. As literature academic Paul Fussell wrote in his 1983 survey Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, “The degree of supervision, indeed, is often a more eloquent class indicator than mere income, which suggests that the whole class system is more a recognition of the value of freedom than a proclamation of the value of sheer cash.” Though Clooney’s “let them ingest Pfizer” moment smacks of typical Hollywood elitism, simply dismissing such comments evades a deeper understanding of the cultural class’s divide from everyday Americans.

Hollywood may be a gated community and its labor a far cry from the coal mining that was my family’s primary occupation until a generation ago, but the bubble that movie stars and filmmakers inhabit is perfectly maintained by the constant supervision to which Fussell alludes spearheaded by management teams, the press, the unions (who are still making a killing exploiting COVID protocols and mandatory jabs long after most of us have reclaimed business as usual), and the moguls who see the industry as one arm of a global conglomerate. Such explains why despite his Italian villa, tequila millions, and seven-figure-a-picture quote, Clooney continues to see himself as just a Kentucky boy who made good tasked by fate with lecturing to the less fortunate and blind to his own position no doubt forged by his nepo baby ties to Aunt Rosemary.

Yet, this ignorance is more the product of an affectation built upon willful ignorance of those who have benefitted from birthright or a subsidized upward mobility as a barrier to coming to terms with their own position. It’s also nothing new. In his 1881 novel The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James gutted the pretensions of the aristocracy through the elder American cosmopolitan Mr. Touchett during a cursory European tour. “‘Well, they want to feel earnest,’ Mr. Touchett allowed; ‘but it seems as if they took it out in theories mostly. Their radical views are a kind of amusement; they’ve got to have some amusement, and they might have coarser tastes than that. You see they’re very luxurious, and these progressive ideas are about their biggest luxury. They make them feel moral and yet don’t damage their position. They think a great deal of their position; don’t let one of them ever persuade you he doesn’t, for if you were to proceed on that basis you’d be pulled up very short.’”

James would not have been surprised that the medium which eclipsed his own eventually compromised its working-class roots and fell prey to the same delusional grandstanding of his own era’s European aristocracy and its American imitators. Since its cultural dominance began in the early 20th century, American cinema has, except on rare occasions, engaged with class issues via one of two strategies: 1) intentional unacknowledgement ala Ticket to Paradise that takes privilege as an aspirational given or 2) Blunt exegesis too self-righteous to understand its own two-dimensionality—the preferred mode of former Will Ferrell collaborator Adam McKay, who traded his deft use of social commentary in blockbuster comedies for the inanity of projects like the abysmal climate change allegory Don’t Look Up that we discussed early last year. The country’s increased polarization coupled with the post-pandemic box-office crisis has led to a renaissance of the latter as studios mine the formula of appealing to niche audiences with challenging films in the hopes that they will return to theaters or at least pay ten dollars a month to invest in yet another streaming service.

The result is a film like the McKay-produced The Menu, an ostensible class satire tinged with horror in which the globally renowned Chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) invites a dozen elite diners to his island restaurant, Hawthorne, with the intent to murder them in a ritual resembling a multi-course meal. Despite his success, Slowik has spent decades nurturing resentment over what he has become, a conceptual artist who promises diners can eat entire ecosystems at $1,400 a plate. He has forgone the joy of cooking for a posturing theatricality. Thus, he engineers a last supper to cleanse fine dining of its foodie sins and consumer excesses, including a group of tech bros who work for Hawthorne’s financier; a pretentious food critic (Janet McTeer) and her sycophant, a washed-up actor (John Leguizamo) of the Seagal variety; a grating millennial who probably has a limitless Williams Sonoma credit card (Nicholas Hoult); and, a wealthy older couple who are regulars of the restaurant yet can’t name a single dish they’ve eaten over the years (Reed Birney and Who’s The Boss?’s Judith Light). Threatening to taint Slowik’s meticulously planned evening massacre is Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), a high-class escort Hoult brings after a breakup even though he is privy to Slowik’s plan and willing to let everyone die, including himself, for his “experiences over things” dogma.

Director Mike Mylod (a frequent director for McKay’s HBO series Succession), brings the required tension and panache for worldbuilding to the affair thanks to his impeccable construction of Hawthorne Island with its minimalist design amid bountiful oceans providing freshly harvested scallops. Biting one-liners (“There’s a neediness to the plating,” crows McTeer) abound, and Taylor-Joy makes for an engaging final girl who, as Slowik tells her during one of their many bantering sessions, can understand the isolation decades in the service industry has leached into his life. Yet, its craft aside, the film never rises to much more than class revenge fantasy, taking time to justify why each diner deserves to die in lieu of fleshing out archetypes, a symptom that indicates how more time spent absorbing Nathaniel Hawthorne’s complex portrayals of guilt and morality would have served the film better than simple allusion. In the end, it’s the type of insular critique that makes a character going to Brown without student loans reason enough for execution while exonerating itself from the fact that most of the film industry’s higher-profile creatives share the same pedigree.

Though substituting satire for gritty neo-neorealism, John Patton Ford’s Emily the Criminal shares The Menu’s righteous class indignation and endorsement of perpetual victimhood that justifies deviant behavior. Emily (Aubrey Plaza), a deadend Doordasher just can’t pay her six-figure student loan bill for her stint in art school thanks to a perfectly understandable criminal conviction for aggravated assault that really wasn’t her fault, guys. So, she joins a vast network of fraudsters who clone credit cards, rack up thousands in purchases, and resell the inventory. When second-in-command Youcef (Theo Rossi) becomes her mentor, Emily begins her Vito Coreleone-like ascent in the alternative economy.

As its title implies, the film wants to revel in the irony of a society where unjust punishment for criminal infractions like the charge that ruins Emily’s life feeds a cycle of lawbreaking and inequality. Unfortunately, though Plaza plays the role with gusto, Emily’s characterization never transcends millennial martyrdom. In perhaps the film’s most pandering scene, she goes off on a design-firm manager (Gina Gershon) who offers her an unpaid internship as a foot in the door at an interview that her more successful former classmate spent weeks setting up. It’s supposed to be a rallying cry for the avocado toast-eating, “Old Economy Steve” meme-sharing underclass who make up the film’s target demo. But, it ends up as just another empty moment free from the introspection that would make Emily compelling.

Ticket to Paradise is now available on disc and streaming services.

The Menu is now available on disc and streaming services.

Emily the Criminal is available on disc and streaming on Netflix.