Joining the billionaire fatigue, Hollywood is sticking it to the rich
‘Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery’ on multiple occasions practically begs its audience to dissect the imagery in its title. Though ‘Glass Onion’ refers literally to an enormous glass pavilion on fictional billionaire Miles Bron’s private island, it just as easily serves as a metaphor for the thin-skinned man himself, his carefully constructed persona so delicate it could shatter at any given moment.
Played by Edward Norton, Miles is perhaps the biggest target of ‘Glass Onion,’ the second installment in a franchise launched by Rian Johnson’s 2019 whodunit ‘Knives Out,’ which follows suit with a timely critique of the upper echelon. Whereas the original film lampooned Trump-era politics, ‘Glass Onion,’ now streaming on Netflix, arrives toward the end of a year plagued by billionaire fatigue. An aversion to the mega-rich seeped into all sorts of entertainment, even that produced by major studios.
Class satire is nothing new to Hollywood, but an urge to stick it to tech billionaires pairs nicely with the industry’s more recent storytelling obsession with scammers. Consider the specific resonance of a character such as Miles, whose famed flair for innovation is quickly revealed to be a bit of a fluke. The film draws clear lines from him to real-life figures such as Elon Musk, whose recently launched tenure as Twitter CEO has been chaotic, to say the least, or cryptocurrency guru Sam Bankman-Fried, who was charged with fraud after the quick demise of his company FTX.
Is something in the air? Perhaps it is the stink of the ‘billionaire vibe shift,’ as Vox recently phrased it, co-opting a tongue-in-cheek term popularised earlier this year by New York magazine that describes a substantial change in cultural trends or attitudes. “It was the year the billionaires showed who they really are,” reads a subhead on the Vox story, which at one point links to an Atlantic article from September that plainly states: “Elon Musk’s Texts Shatter the Myth of the Tech Genius.”
And with that echo of shattering glass, we return to Miles and his fragile ego. He invites to his island an unlikely group of friends, including the governor of Connecticut (Kathryn Hahn) and a dimwitted socialite (Kate Hudson) who made big bucks selling sweatpants. The most notable attendees are Cassandra ‘Andi’ Brand (Janelle Mone) - Miles’s estranged business partner, the Eduardo Saverin to his Mark Zuckerberg - and detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who receives a surprise invite.
The crew assembles for a weekend-long murder mystery game in which Miles positions himself as the victim, like a version of Clue where Mr. Boddy watches all the sleuthing firsthand. His friends accept the premise but recognize things are rarely so simple with someone like Miles. His relationships are transactional; his money fuels their individual endeavors, so what does he want from them?
It’s a good question, another version of which threads through the latest season of HBO’s ‘The White Lotus,’ which aired its finale recently. Created by Mike White, the anthology series takes place at different White Lotus vacation resorts around the world. Among Season 2’s Sicilian vacationers are businessman Cameron Sullivan (Theo James), who comes from money and now works in the rapacious investment world, and his college roommate Ethan Spiller (Will Sharpe), who recently sold his company for quite a large sum.
White’s class critique extends beyond discipline; it isn’t clear what sort of work Ethan does, just that it amassed him enough wealth to persuade Cameron and his wife, Daphne (Meghann Fahy), that they have enough in common with Ethan and his wife, Harper (Aubrey Plaza), to insist they join them in Italy. Harper operates early on as a stand-in for the audience, a labor attorney who elicits blank stares from Cameron and Daphne when she suggests they’re all living through “the end of the world.”
She asks Ethan, again and again: Why did Cameron invite them here? What does he want?
The answer probably has something to do with money. But to a greater extent than in the first season, which explores structural inequities among the wealthy beach vacationers and Native Hawaiian members of the resort staff, ‘The White Lotus’ is far more concerned with the psychology involved. What is it in Cameron that drives his habit of consistently belittling Ethan, who has always been smarter than his more popular friend? How do insecurities manifest in a friendship between two grown men?
Such issues of self-worth can plague any sort of relationship - but the show proposes that they eat the rich and ambitious alive. On an episode of “Fresh Air” from earlier this month, White told host Terry Gross that this most recent season broadly suggests that “when you’re wealthy and you don’t have situational problems that have to do with money, then your problems become existential.”
“You have all of the tools to figure out your life, and you can’t figure out your life,” White said, adding that “if you’re in paradise and you feel like something’s missing or you’re melancholy or you’re tortured, you know it’s not the ambient nature of what’s going on - it’s something in you.”
His words recall the deeply morose nature of, say, Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong), the fallen ‘Number 1 boy’ of the cutthroat media-mogul family depicted in HBO’s ‘Succession.’ They also ring true in Swedish filmmaker Ruben Ostlund’s class satire ‘Triangle of Sadness,’ which hit on similar truths of how wealth operates in the Western world.
Conflict first arises in ‘Triangle of Sadness’ at a restaurant where high-fashion models Yaya (Charlbi Dean) and Carl (Harris Dickinson) fight over who is expected to pay for their dinner. It’s more about the principle than the money itself, Carl insists at the beginning of an argument that comes to encompass the politics of sexuality as well. Later in the film, in circumstances where money can no longer serve as a distraction, it becomes apparent how aimless Yaya and Carl are without it.
What do the mega-rich really want? For Miles Bron, the answer is consistent for his close friends and the general public: acceptance and unwavering adoration. As the real, unplanned murder mystery of ‘Glass Onion’ unfolds, Mone and Craig’s characters peel back Miles’s layers as well. The biggest reveal turns out not to be the identity of the murderer, nor even the involved methodology, but rather how simple it is to shatter the illusions of personal grandeur that often accompany wealth.