Ruben Östlund’s new film thinks it’s funnier than it is; fails to be smarter than the idiotic characters it lampoons; and wants to be edgier and more controversial than it can pull off. That, sadly, is the real Triangle of Sadness.
The title refers to the area of skin between the eyebrows that crinkles and creases in consternation; the movie tackles the vacuous vanity of the uber-wealthy. Or at least, that’s what it wants to do. The film is split into three sections. “Carl and Yaya” explores the bickering, shallow relationship between two models (Harris Dickinson and Charlbi Dean) as it slowly disintegrates in a single night over the third-rail topic of money. “The Yacht” follows the couple onto what I can only assume is a save-the-relationship luxury cruise, expanding beyond them to observe the power dynamics between the elite passengers and the eager-to-please staff. As the second part devolves into gross-out, anything-goes (even if it doesn’t make any thematic or narrative sense) chaos, it transitions into “The Island,” where shifting power dynamics thrust the absurdity of, well, everything into sharp relief.
The set-up is superb – so where does Triangle go wrong? It’s not particularly funny, for one. The middle section – ostensibly the most comical – plays as though a stoned Chris Farley wrote a sketch about rich people stuck on a cruise ship when their bladders rebel, and then Östlund stretched it to last 45 minutes and not star anyone with the comedic chops of Chris Farley. In one sequence, a wealthy Russian monopolist (he “sells shit” – aka fertilizer – get it??) gets into an argument with the drunken Captain, played by Woody Harrelson, where they trade quotes about capitalism and communism back-and-forth. It ends with the Russian wryly noting the “irony” of an American socialist encountering a Russian capitalist. Yes, Ruben, we get it. The rest of the film is no less subtle.
Of course, subtlety isn’t necessary if a film effectively skewers its targets – but Triangle of Sadness doesn’t get that right, either. There’s nothing new here. In fact, the most damning revelation might be that the film’s smug sense of superiority is dangerously close to matching that of the privileged few it hopes to mock. “Carl and Yaya” spins a series of observations about gender roles and superficiality into an unfunny half-hour of cringe comedy, but never gets past the surface itself. You’d be forgiven for thinking it was written 15 years ago. And as if realizing it ran out of interesting things to say before the first act even ends, the film abruptly abandons the supremely uninteresting couple, flitting back to them only to make the same joke every so often, hoping it’s been long enough that you fail to realize this is essentially a four-song playlist on repeat. And none of those songs is particularly good.
Harrelson is drolly amusing in his offbeat way; the movie barely uses him, which may be part of his charm, but certainly leaves you wanting more. He and Zlatko Burič (the shit-selling Russian) are on the same page about what movie they’re in, and though the dialogue does them dirty, they have enough fun with it that their segment is the most enjoyable. I don’t understand the overwhelming critical love for Dolly de Leon. She’s not bad by any means, just one-note; I wonder if audiences take such a cathartic pleasure in her seemingly powerless character’s sadistic third-act pleasures that they’ve transposed that success onto the actor. The camerawork is not particularly inspired, either. Östlund and cinematographer Fredrik Wenzel seem to delight in trying to make audiences feel woozy, but it plays as a bag of mediocre tricks, and one that isn’t particularly connected to whatever goals the film may have.
Movies like Triangle of Sadness delights in negative reviews – when your film wants to be a controversial attack on power structures, it’s easy to claim that you’ve pissed off the right people. This isn’t that movie. It’s a blunt-tipped knife that could barely cut through the weakened fat of an overstuffed rich belly gone soft from over-indulgence. So of course it won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.