“Nothing without joy, everything to excess.” For the 10 members of the all-male cloak and dagger society called The Riot Club, that is a motto to live by. All of them are among the hardest-working students at Oxford University and demand they play just as relentlessly as they work. Several of them are descendants of nobility or the UK’s most powerful political leaders. Fraternizing with any person beneath an upper-class status would be out of the question for several of them. As for ordinary men and women who disagree with their archaic, conservative values: watch out.
If spending time with the most elite of English swills sounds like a fun time at the movies, then The Riot Club should be a must-see. Anyone looking to mock the spoiled rotten virtues of the upper percentile of the 1%, though, will not find too much to heckle here. The film cannot boast the timeliness of Laura Wade’s acclaimed play it is based on, which came out shortly after the 2008 financial crisis and shortly before David Cameron – who belonged to a similar elite club – became Britain’s prime minister. Without the synergizing power of the political zeitgeist, the film feels a few years too late, and oddly restrained for a story filled with such horny, hedonistic young men.
Of the 10 members in the society, the film focuses mostly on the two Riot Club newcomers, Miles (Max Irons, son of Jeremy) and Alistair (Sam Claflin, from the Hunger Games franchise). Miles is cheeky and kind, more interested in tagging along withthe club members for fun and games than to engage in tasteless, upper-crust snobbery. Alistair has a different aim, hoping the society will boost his push for power in the eventual working world. The rest of the crew is played by a who’s who of young, handsome talent from England or Australia: Douglas Booth as the sex-crazed Harry Villiers, Sam Reid as limerick-loving homosexual Hugo, Ben Schnetzer as Greek banking inheritor Dmitri.
The film adaptation comes courtesy of two women. The first is Wade, translating her own work to the screen, while the second is director Lone Scherfig (An Education). For an ensemble of characters filled with chauvinist ideals, to have two women as the film’s primary creative forces is an intriguing move. Instead of immersing us in the debauchery with the gaze of a male director, the women have the decorum to distance the audience from the more sordid thoughts of the male characters. (In comparison, think about how The Wolf of Wall Street’s Martin Scorsese and Filth director Jon S. Baird made drug use and rampant sexuality more alluring than alienating.) For the first third of the film, it seems that Wade and Scherfig are enjoying the chance to chastise a group of misogynistic, entitled men.
Unfortunately, The Riot Club becomes less interesting as it pushes forward. About half of the film’s running time centers on a single night out at a family pub, where the Riot Club members insist on a decadent dinner in a private room at the back. It is in these scenes, mostly sticking to that posh dining room, where the film’s stage influence is most apparent. The prolonged dinner scene eventually becomes plodding, filled with empty posturing from the spoiled protagonists but little else to keep us engaged. The characters’ views of social and political matters are shallow; essentially, many of them loathe poor people just because they can.
For this night out, Scherfig tries her best to keep the frothy conversation flowing and introduce new characters to get the plot moving. (A prostitute played by Natalie Dormer and Jessica Brown Findlay’s waitress, Rachel, are both reviled by some of the students’ tasteless comments.) However, the conflict only comes to a boil when the posh upper-class men, who have the giddiness of sugar-high boys at a birthday party, clash with the calmer needs of the genteel crowds outside, as well as pub manager Chris (Gordon Brown). The film is most interesting when focusing on the obvious clash between the old money club members and the working-class figures they encounter and, inevitably, insult.
Unfortunately, few of these club members are compelling, with little discernible personality to offer besides the heft of their bank account and a gleeful love for casual sex and substances. Even Miles and Alistair, the two central characters, mostly come across as mouthpieces for polar political views. During a tutorial debate, Miles expresses his sympathy for the welfare state while Alistair exposes his distaste for financially liberal policy. With these exceptions, many of the students start to blend together after a while.
Only the actors playing dignified common folk repulsed by the Riot Club resonate. As Miles’s girlfriend, Lauen, Holliday Grainger gives feeling to a role meant to be the audience’s surrogate, a young woman charmed by the handsome appeal of the club’s members yet opposed to their lewd behavior. However, the farther away Scherfig’s film moves from the common people, the less compelling the story is.The characters in the titular society sometimes behave like superficial men from a beer commercial, basking in masculine bonding without saying much of merit. They make awful puns, like “Once more into the drink, dear friends.” They try to convince women that sex with them would be a prize worth fighting for, since they have “the finest sperm in the country.” Despite reeking of decadence, few of them have an individual scent.
Those hoping to see provocative, decadent shenanigans will likely be disappointed by the tameness of what happens onscreen. There is vandalism, cocaine use and a few vulgar sex-related comments, yet the riotous entertainment the title promises rarely arrives. Contrary to the group motto, The Riot Club is neither filled with much joy nor enough excess to make for worthwhile entertainment.
Filled with caricatures rather than characters and bereft of much riotous fun, The Riot Club only works as a showcase for its young male ensemble.