Boys will be boys and wealthy assholes will be wealthy assholes in The Riot Club, an alleged cautionary tale that revels in bad behavior for nearly two hours before finally offering up a stern “tsk, tsk, tsk.” Unlike the great gangster and outlaw movies, however, this unpleasant, moralistic film doesn’t succeed in making transgression look cathartically appealing. It hates its posh characters too much (indeed, it’s adapted from a British stage play called Posh), and most of its creative energy is expended on finding ways to make them all look singularly appalling. Toward the beginning, one upper-class twit gets robbed at knifepoint while withdrawing cash from an ATM and proceeds to snottily correct the thief’s redundant use of “PIN number,” pointing out that the “N” in PIN already stands for the word “number”; we’re clearly meant to feel secretly pleased when he gets the shit kicked out of him on top of having his money stolen. That could be a funny scene in a broad comedy, but here it’s presented as both credible and damning. Wanker!
Loosely based on the real-life Bullingdon Club at Oxford University (though Laura Wade, who wrote Posh, denies any connection), the Riot Club always consists of precisely 10 grotesquely privileged snobs. As the movie begins, at the start of a new term, two members have graduated and need to be replaced, and two ideal candidates speedily present themselves. One is Alistair Ryle (Sam Claflin, who looks eerily as if he could be Jeremy Irons’ son), the younger brother of a former “legendary” Riot Club president, where being legendary apparently entailed causing as much property damage as possible. He’s a gimme. The other new inductee is audience surrogate Miles Richards (Max Irons, who actually is Jeremy Irons’ son), a comparatively nice guy who nonetheless feels honored to have been chosen. He manages to shrug off the Club’s hazing process, which involves trashing his dorm room and making him drink a concoction containing spit, boogers, and maggots. When their annual feast crosses the line into assault and battery, however, along with humiliating his non-posh girlfriend (Holliday Grainger), Miles begins to have doubts.
The Riot Club’s onstage origin is particularly evident in its second half, which depicts a single night of debauchery at a restaurant in tiresome detail. Director Lone Scherfig (An Education) hasn’t figured out how to make 10 young men sitting around a long table drinking spirits and snorting lines of coke visually interesting, so the emphasis falls squarely on Wade’s banal dialogue, which involves Alistair giving impassioned speeches about the Club members’ inherent superiority to the useless masses. In real life, the Bullingdon Club is apparently known for destroying venues (and reimbursing their owners on the spot), but the Riot Club’s slow escalation to felony assault feels utterly contrived—though it’s easy to believe the victim when he tells the police that he can’t identify who attacked him, because the boys all look alike. With the two exceptions mentioned, these dull characters are mostly interchangeable. They’re just a collective means of making a prostitute (Game Of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer), who they’ve hired to give them all blowjobs underneath the table, look classy by comparison when she refuses their money and leaves.