Those of us who lead hapless lives know how frightening getting up in the morning can be. Instead of rising and embracing the daylight with an ardent cuddle and a zealous "Yahoo!" we see grey clouds overhead and wonder aloud, "What now?" Another egg carton with broken shells? A second bedbug infestation within twelve months? Still no replies to our Christian Mingles ad even though we've noted we can recite the Book of Revelation by heart in Latin?
Ah, if only we were born into a family of elites. The ultra-rich. Aristocrats with an enviable gene pool.
But instead we're impoverished and pear-shaped with squinty eyes and in need of Proactiv+.
On top of these misfortunes, we really know the gods are against us if while fingering the remote, we accidentally come across Joshua Jackson in The Skulls (2000), and begin to watch it out of inertia. This incapacitating thriller was inspired by Yale's secretive society, Skull and Bones, a club that counted both George H.W. Bush and G.W. Bush as members. Here is a society that legend claims grooms its chosen few to become leaders and manipulators of every aspect of American society, with the possible exception of Nickelodeon.
Well, Lone Scherfig's The Riot Club, which is much better than The Skulls, is an adaptation of Laura Wade's play Posh, which ran successfully at London's Royal Court in 2010. This is a British take on the matter. Over there, under Queen Elizabeth's corgis' gaze, numerous ruling class members have been part of Oxford University's Bullingdon Club, a prime example being the current Prime Minister David Cameron, a political leader not especially renowned for his affection for the less unfortunate inhabitants of Britain.
In the film, the disdainful group is called the Riot Club, named after a Lord Ryot, a popular satyric student of the late 1700s, who was fatally wounded by a professor for copulating with the said professor's wife. Apparently, Ryot "lived by the 'sword' and died by the 'sword.'" In his defense, he noted that he didn't know the maiden he was consorting with was married. "By her conduct, I thought she'd never been satisfied before." To honor him, a tony, hedonistic society was begun that was restricted to a membership of ten.
Jump to present time, and two new inductees have just been selected to join the Riots. There's Alistair (Sam Claflin), whose brother was formerly president of the Club. From a wealthy family, he's resentful that both his kin and his new peers expect him to be wild and brilliant like his brother. He wants to rebel against these expectancies, yet he doesn't really have the moxie to do so.
Then there's Miles (Max Irons), an affable, humor-laden lad with a streak of humanity in him. He's not quite sure why he was chosen to be part of this elite posse. His family is not that well off or upper-crust, and his girlfriend Lauren (Holliday Grainger) is unremittingly lower middle class.
The rest of the boys are beastly archetypes fleshed out with a few no-frills strokes. There's the homosexual with a crush on Miles; the impossibly handsome Lothario who carries on with business over the mobile while receiving oral sex; and the Greek lad who's accepted for his wealth while treated condescendingly because of his lack of pedigree, and so forth. The rest of this heavy-drinking lot is pretty interchangeable. By the end of the film, you might still have trouble telling who's who, even between Alistair and Miles because Claflin and Irons look so identical.
Well, the first half of the film is a setup. The lads vomit, act insufferably la-di-da and spout neologisms that only they can laugh at.
"You know there are some people who think they're here to get a degree."
"Being invited to Oxford is like being invited to 100 parties at once, and I want to go to all of them."
"Care to join me in a game of Spot the Virgin?"
Witticisms aside, the Riots blindfold Miles for his initiation and have him imbibe a glass of wine in which I believe boogers, spit, jism, and other elements have been added.
The second half takes place in an out-of-town pub with a working-class owner and clientele. The lads reserve a room, arrive en masse, begin their alcoholic shenanigans, and become exceedingly violent, and one yells out, "I'm sick to death of poor people!"
The unlucky owner finally enters the room and avers, "You're just spoiled, little brats." Uh, oh, those are fighting words. Let the fisticuffs begin.
While The Riot Club is fairly predictable, its cast is no doubt a showcasing of the stars of British cinema's future not unlike our own The Outsider (1983) that supplied us with Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio, Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise, Diane Lane, Patrick Swayze, and so many more.
Max Irons clearly inherited the thespian genes of his dad Jeremy; the stunning Douglas Booth is sort of a male Keira Knightley; Sam Claflin has three Hunger Games under his belt, and the lovely Holliday Grainger has already starred as Bonnie Parker and Lucrezia Borgia, and is currently filming the lead in Lady Chatterley's Lover. And, of course, there's Game of Thrones' Natalie Dormer, who steals the film as a prostitute with a bit too much class for the boys -- and she commits her theft in just five minutes of screen time.
So in the end, The Riot Club is less a free-for-all-brawl than a somewhat grating kerfuffle. Sherfig, who won us over with Italian for Beginners and An Education, lost her way a bit here, no doubt because Wade couldn't transform her own play into a thoroughly enticing screenplay. Her good intentions are unrealized, so instead of a piercing illumination of the modern British class system, what is wrought is a masturbatory blueblood frolic, sort of an Animal House for snoots. - Brandon Judell
Mr. Judell has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire.com, the New York Daily News, Soho Style, and The Advocate, and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi) and John Preston's A Member of the Family (Dutton). He is also a member of the performance/writing group FlashPoint.