The have-nots have had enough this awards season.
As economic strife is seemingly deepening worldwide, those without financial resources are fighting back — on the big screen, at least.
Oscar hopefuls ranging from “Hustlers,” “Parasite,” “Joker” and “Les Miserables” to “Harriet” and “Us” revolve around real and fictional people that take matters into their own hands, fighting to gain more control of their surroundings by any means necessary. The settings vary — from modern-day South Korea to recession-era New York, the pre-Civil War South and contemporary France — but the underlying dynamic is the same.
Even characters in genteel “Downton Abbey” revolt against royal minders in the big-screen adaptation of the popular series, asserting their rightful place upstairs, albeit in service. “Richard Jewell” and “The Laundromat,” meanwhile, both outline the predicaments of those caught in the web of people and companies with far greater power. Those below the uppermost classes must defend themselves when the system fails to do so.
All these movies will vie with domestic dramas such as “Marriage Story,” mob epic “The Irishman,” Quentin Tarantino’s retro “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” the women of Fox News’ pic “Bombshell” and “Jojo Rabbit,” a movie with an Adolf Hitler character improbably billed as an anti-hate satire, for their share of Oscar glory. They’re competing amid great political turmoil and debate over how much of a tax break the wealthy receive in America.
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Class warfare is especially acute in “Hustlers,” “Parasite” and “Joker.” The strippers in “Hustlers” flaunt their bodies to pay the bills, but the money dries up when the stock market crashes and they resort to drugging their Wall Street marks in order to make a living and then some. Ramona, the maternal character played by Jennifer Lopez, justifies their behavior by citing the financial misdeeds of so many Wall Streeters leading up to the crash. Judging by the whoops and hollers at the screening I attended, part of the appeal of “Hustlers” for some moviegoers is the vicarious thrill of watching the female characters go on shopping sprees after fleecing rich men.
In Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite,” the Kim family literally belongs to the Korean underclass, residing in a basement-level apartment and subsisting on low-paying gigs like folding pizza boxes. Then the elder child lands a tutoring job for the wealthy Park family, and his family slowly worms its way into the affluent household. Over the course of the movie, it becomes clear that the Kim family is not the only underdweller fighting to survive. The filmmaker uses a deft touch, and humor, to make his point about class inequality.
“Joker,” designed as an origin story for the popular comic book character, is far more lurid, depicting a man (Joaquin Phoenix) struggling to survive with mental illness and a challenging home life. Arthur Fleck makes his living as a clown, but there’s nothing funny about him in director and co-writer Todd Phillips’ movie, set during a Gotham City garbage strike in 1981.
The gap between the cops and citizens they patrol in Ladj Ly’s “Les Miserables” isn’t nearly as wide, but might as well be. The residents of the outlying Parisian neighborhood have fewer resources than the working-class policemen who try to retain order amid palpable racial tensions in the city. It’s a powderkeg destined to explode, and the movie does not shy away from that reality, or the nuances among the three main officers’ policing styles.
Harriet Tubman, meanwhile, is literally enslaved by circumstances outside her control. But she rebels against her master and escapes to Philadelphia, aided by a number of helpful people (including a Quaker named Garrett!) along the way. A woman of deep faith and mystical powers in “Harriet,” she returns to the South at great risk and guides other African Americans to freedom.
Characters in “Us” are even more subterranean — and horrific — than those in “Parasite,” residing in tunnels beneath the Santa Cruz boardwalk circa 1986. In his followup to “Get Out,” writer-director Jordan Peele explores an uneasy world filled with deadly doppelgangers that wreak havoc on their more affluent counterparts above ground.
Other awards hopefuls mine the tension between the haves and have-nots without explicit revolt. The March sisters in Greta Gerwig’s retelling of “Little Women” covet the finer things that their wealthier friends and neighbors have, but try to rise above those feelings. The movie does not gloss over the constrained opportunities for Bostonian women in that Civil War era: Marrying well, several female characters concede, is the best way for women to ensure a comfortable life.
But even having a seemingly comfortable middle-class life isn’t enough to guarantee a secure future, as “The Laundromat,” Steven Soderbergh’s movie about the offshore accounting exposed in the Panama Papers, makes clear. A spiritual successor to “The Big Short,” it stars Meryl Streep as a seemingly mild-mannered widow who seeks justice from an insurance company that avoids payment for the disaster that killed her husband.
She won’t accept their financial shenanigans, and Soderbergh’s movie posits that Americans shouldn’t accept legislation that awards ever bigger tax breaks to the most wealthy either. The question for awards watchers: Will these movies about haves and have-nots resonate with Oscar voters? Or will they prefer more upbeat stories, as with “Green Book,” last year’s best pic winner, about an unlikely friendship?
We’ll know better Jan. 13, when nominations are announced.