“That’s a murder house. That’s a house where murder happens,” says Jack (Michael Tennant, who also scripted), upon seeing the modernist, mid-vineyard fortress where he and his wife were invited for the weekend by a brand new rich friend. There’s no cell phone signal, no internet, and said friend Cat (J.J. Nolan) already seems quite erratic ... not to mention, scarily knowledgeable about Jack’s background. But while literal murder isn’t in the cards, a subtler form of torment most definitely is. Jack and his wife Lindsay (Britt Rentschler, also co-writer), are about to have their entire lives casually and cruelly manipulated by people so privileged they barely know or care that they’re doing so.
We first meet Jack and Lindsay during sex that’s so bad that they stop mid-coitus and finish themselves off separately later. He’s on probation for assaulting a guy who insulted her; she works at an overpriced clothing store that barely sells anything. When Cat breezes in one day, striking up a conversation and buying almost everything in the store to shut Lindsay’s boss up, it’s an extreme and sudden act of generosity. So when she extends the weekend invite, of course Lindsay takes it. There’s one other couple coming, whom Cat claims to hate–pompous heir Kerry (Alex Klein) and his extremely drunken actress-model lover Carrie (Charlotte Ubben). Cat’s husband Matt (Graham Outerbridge) is a self-made tech bro, but seems reasonably cool in spite of it.
Anyone who has ever hung out with acquaintances from a higher social or economic status will recognize the dynamic that ensues. The rich folks quickly grow bored with one activity, rush along to the next thing, expecting everyone to adapt to their pacing (regardless of the cost), and consume lots of controlled substances to maintain their own enthusiasm. Servants and hucksters may scam them out of payments for pure nonsense, like a shamanic cleansing ritual that simply quotes Four Non-Blondes and Spice Girls lyrics, but the hosts are on a level of oblivion where they can’t tell “what’s going on,” nor would they care about cost or depth if they did.
Anyone who has not known such experiences, on the other hand, may recognize a touch of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s skewering of jazz-age decadence, updated for the time of the crypto-bro. Were he alive today, The Great Gatsby author might be all too familiar with these types, and all too disappointed we’ve learned little in a century. The humor in Pretty Problems isn’t often laugh-out-loud funny, but the observational satire is astute: it highlights how charity may be a performative act for donors, but that makes the need no less urgent for recipients, while acknowledging how far wealth distances some people from reality.
Cat and Matt drink constantly, in addition to other vices, and at a pace that would destroy the livers of mere mortals. Director Kestrin Pantera offers up especially visceral hangover scenes for poor Jack and “Lindz,” complete with painful morning light, uncomfortable bed poses, and actors portraying intense dehydration combined with a lack of mobility in the direction of the nearest water. The movie may be set in wine country, but after watching it, viewers may contemplate teetotaling. Viewers may be reminded of Ozploitation cult classic Wake In Fright, about the hazards of trying to keep pace with an alcoholic outback doctor who hunts kangaroos, eats their meat, drinks more, and does the same again the next day.
There’s a fair bit to be said here about different kinds of self-loathing attracting and feeding each other, like the world’s worst relationship. The “poor” couple hate the stagnation of their lives, brought on by some bad choices and an uncaring economy. But the rich couples hate themselves just as much for having nothing new going on, and no challenges. In trying to use the others in order to feel better, they only make their own stagnation obvious, without remedying it at all.
These cast members feel familiar, even if they aren’t. Tennant has the hapless affability of a Will Forte type, while Nolan’s like a hyper Missi Pyle. Klein and Outerbridge, however, legit look like highly punchable NFT pitchmen, putting across their personalities with just enough of an undercurrent of self-deprecation to make you (and Jack) hope there’s more to them (there’s not).
It’s not a spoiler to say that the movie ends before taking any time to pontificate on larger issues than six people trying to get along for two days. That doesn’t mean there are none, but it’s entirely possible that Pretty Problems’ insights on class, status, and metaphorical and literal impotence are simply the natural outgrowth of fully developed characters pushed together to see what happens. And it’s worth seeing, unless you’re the sort of viewer who needs an actively good person to root for.