Coup! 2023 Movie Review
The kind of self-flaggellation the Left does is something you never see from the Right. The Left’s fears about being in a bubble, about not doing enough to understand the other side, about their own overreach, are a phenomenon unique to liberals. There does not need to be a New York Times Pitchbot for the Right. Ben Shapiro is not issuing a blistering movie review takedown of a Dinesh D’Souza documentary that went too far and didn’t listen enough to the other side.
And now there’s “Coup!” Politically muddled at best, something Ron DeSantis would happily introduce at CPAC at worst, this populist satire from directors Austin Stark and Joseph Schuman is an Adam McKay-lite class-war confection looking to have it both ways. Its “eat the rich” message is certainly strong enough for those with an extremely niche grievance: Those who, three years later, want to get in zingers at the Chris Cuomo types who fled cities for their country mansions while still acting like they were doing something to fight Covid on the front lines. But its thumb is invariably on the scale for a right-wing view, as much as Stark and Schuman have said that they feel the politics of “Coup!” reflect more those of the person watching it than what’s in the film itself.
To proffer a mission statement like that (in the film’s production notes) in advance of its Biennale premiere, essentially saying that the film is whatever you yourself bring to it, suggests some preliminary defensiveness. That the criticism they’re anticipating has a political motivation. It’s also disingenuous. But before you click out of this review thinking I’m just some performatively woke journalist in a liberal bubble and why read what I have to say: I’ve praised a film from a Red Scare podcaster, offered kind words to a Mel Gibson vehicle, suggested that a rehabilitation of John Galliano is a good thing, and I live in Florida. “Coup!” isn’t objectionable for its politics, it’s objectionable for trying to deny them. Unless its politics are just that muddled, and then Stark and Schuman have no idea at all how to express whatever it is they’re trying to say.
Set in 1918 during the Spanish Flu pandemic, but in every conceivable sense making it clear it’s about 2020, “Coup!” stars Peter Sarsgaard as a ruffian who assumes the identity of a deceased chef to take up what would have been the man’s next job: to be the cook for a wealthy family in lockdown in their palatial mansion on Egg Island, a wealthy enclave in the Northeast (think Martha’s Vineyard).
Sarsgaard’s Floyd Monk speaks in a laconic, nonspecific drawl that just conveys “redneck,” and the culture clash with this moneyed family’s patriarch is apparent from the first: Billy Magnussen’s Jay Horton (has to be “Jay” for the extra Gatsby flair) fancies himself another Upton Sinclair, writing about the struggle of the working man at the expense of elites, when he is the definition of an elite himself. He writes his populist columns while wearing a dressing gown and red, velvet slippers, walks around in that ensemble while carrying a cup and saucer, and loves to puff on a big wooden pipe. He even has a rat-like mustache that seems ripped off the face of the Duke in “Moulin Rouge.”
Jay’s initial three servants are underpaid and forced to stay in the “staff quarters” (don’t call them “servant’s quarters”!). The sprawling swimming pool is, of course, off limits. When Floyd arrives, he helps to put steel in their spines and embolden them. They’re putting themselves at risk of exposure to the flu by going out and doing the household shopping. Why not ask for better pay? And, for that matter, to sleep in the mansion’s many unused bedrooms?
All of them achieve these demands, and more. There’s Kaan (Faran Tahir), an immigrant from Turkey who found America not to be a land of plenty; Mrs. Tidwell (Skye P. Marshall), who’s hoping to go to medical school; and Mrs. McMurray (Kristine Nielsen), older and so invested in maintaining the established order that Floyd has to poison her to get her out of the way before his “Parasite”-like plot to move them into the house, and deeper into the lives of the Hortons, can begin.
It’s a mark of just how much the thumb is on the scale in favor of Floyd’s side here that he could poison this other character and you’re still rooting for him. No wonder. The three other “staff” are barely written, while Sarsgaard’s performance is all yokel charisma, a “man of action” who takes charge and provides for his surrogate family by hunting game on the island when the last stores shutter and the ferry to the mainland stops. Deer you shoot yourself might be the only way to stave off starvation, and Floyd becomes to “Coup!” what Dolly DeLeon’s character emerges to be in “Triangle of Sadness” (which the filmmakers say they had not seen beforehand): a disempowered person who actually holds the most power in this situation.
Of course, Jay, as an example of an early limousine liberal who only says and writes the progressive claptrap he does for show, is a vegetarian and recoils at the very idea of hunting. That doesn’t mean he won’t take the credit for the first night’s dinner when Floyd says Jay himself shot the beast. And credit for all the kills after that. He exults in the testosterone fantasy that gives him as his wife Julie (Sarah Gadon, making the absolute most of her also-underwritten role) regards him with new appreciation and “Siegfried’s Death March” swells in all its Wagnerian glory on the soundtrack.
The message is clear, equivocating from the filmmakers aside: liberal males are hypocrites who only profess the things they do because they can’t be the Alpha Male they secretly fantasize to be. Unless, of course, they somehow can ultimately live out that Alpha Male fantasy. The sheer likability of Floyd and the detestability of Magnussen’s portrayal of Jay allows for few other readings.
It turns out the entire plot is motivated as a plan to get revenge because of the people forced out of work when the pandemic lockdown happened; as if it was only clueless elites able to escape to their mansions who were advocating for the lockdowns to happen. The fact that Jay checks so many liberal signifier boxes (by the time he passionately calls for defending the rights of women and immigrants after showing no other interest in advocating for them to that point, he’s basically “Virtue Signaling, The Character”) suggests a side has been taken here. It even includes a moment that says we should be a lot more careful to label just anybody as “an insurrectionist.”
Stark and Schuman should have more guts and just own what their movie is. But “Coup!” doesn’t really own anything. Not its politics (maybe for the sake of deniability by some involved). Not its own nastiness: “Coup!” is actually a lot less biting in the end than “Parasite” or “Triangle of Sadness,” or even “The Menu.” Nor its 1918 setting, which is barely fleshed out through only the most perfunctory period production and costume design.
It would have been infinitely more marketable if “Coup!” had just been a direct satire of 2020, if at least to Shapiro’s own distribution company. With “Coup!” so reluctant to own anything, it’s hard to imagine many viewers are going to buy what it has to say.