“First world problems” as they’ve become popularly termed, are the issues that come with living in a wealthy, industrial state where your real problems are so distant that you’ve basically had to invent problems, ones which those living in the third would would surely be desperate to have.
When you’re financially comfortable and have a roof over your head, it’s human nature to essentially create new problems for yourself rather than just enjoy the comfort you have, because we as human beings are never truly happy and satisfied, are we now?
This transpires through to the movie world; for every first world problem, there is a movie prepared to indulge that middle-to-upper-class fancy, and support the notion that these problems – usually existential – are a quandary worth exploring. It couldn’t possibly be that these self-entitled folk just need a slap around the face and a little perspective now, could it? Here are 10 misguided movies about first world problems…
Pretty much every film Noah Baumbach has made has firmly been about middle-class neurosis, and his most pronounced expression of that is in 2010′s Greenberg. Ben Stiller stars as Roger Greenberg, a middle-aged computer programmer who suffers from crushing anxiety, and flies to LA after suffering a nervous breakdown to just relax and “do nothing”. Here he meets Florence (Greta Gerwig), a similarly socially awkward type, and the two slowly hit it off.
While the central romance works in of itself, the film’s position towards Roger’s predicament is a little exasperating; Baumbach clearly believes him to be a far more likable character than he really is. Roger proves difficult to warm to, and it’s a tad irritating how tolerant the other characters are of his empty existence.
That he has time to simply sit around doing nothing and can’t even do that right is pretty annoying – seriously, how hard is it? I suppose, in the end, that might be part of the point.
9. Eat, Pray, Love
Eat Pray Love is essentially an overstuffed, overlong travelogue of food, spirituality and exotic locations, an advert for being wealthy and travelling the world to resolve your oh-so-pressing existential problems. Julia Roberts plays Elizabeth Gilbert, a successful writer who, unhappy in her marriage, initiates a divorce and then decides to jet off on a trip that sees her visit Italy, India and then Indonesia, eating, praying and loving in that order.
There is a way to document existential angst, and this is so not it; Elizabeth is not a particularly likable character, as we never see her actually engage with and confront her problems. Instead, she spends most of the film “finding herself”, which mostly equates to eating gelato and trying to assume the Lotus position. There is absolutely no psychological or emotional depth to her character; she simply trots around some beautifully-filmed locales with beautiful people, and bam, she’s “cured”.
8. Like Crazy
Like Crazy is a better film than most of the entries on this list, but it nevertheless must be said that the film is a perfect example of a movie that doesn’t have a real problem at its core. The story is of a British exchange student named Anna (Felicity Jones) living in Los Angeles, and the American furniture designer, Jacob (Anton Yelchin), she falls in love with.
Anna foolishly outstays her visa while in the throes of love, and after returning to the UK briefly, she is denied entry back into the US. She’s stuck in London, and Jacob, whose business is starting to take off, isn’t too keen to relocate himself to Blighty, forcing them into a long-distance relationship.
Though the strong performances might try to convince you differently, this is an oddly inert film about two people who don’t really do anything about their problem. In reality, if the two really were in love that deeply, Jacob could have solved his problem with a plane ticket, though apparently the allure of money was far more important to him, so his angst seems unfounded.
As for Anna, even when she gets her Visa ban lifted, the ending implies that the initial spark of their relationship has been destroyed by all this turmoil. Never satisfied – oh, the irony…
7. Marie Antoinette
Sofia Coppola’s first of two entries on this list is in her oddball take on Marie Antoinette, a movie about a rich, attractive woman who appears to have it all, yet is so heavily subjugated that none of it matters in the end.
She drops everything to marry Louis XVI of France (Jason Schwartzman), though soon enough finds herself enduring a bout of existential ennui once her relations with Louis fail to bring about an heir. They eventually have sex once the mechanics are explained to Louis, bringing about a baby, who Marie looks after while embarking on an affair with another man.
Marie just has no perspective about the world around her; she’s troubled about her marriage while France crumbles on the outside, yet her decadent lifestyle and seeming ignorance about the plight at large causes her to become named Madame Déficit by the public.
One would be tempted to draw a parallel to Coppola’s own privileged upbringing, or is that too much of a stretch? Still, don’t we all wish we could live luxuriously while the world burns around us?
6. I’m Still Here
I’m Still Here is, as we now know, a mockumentary film directed by Casey Affleck, depicting the apparent “retirement” of Joaquin Phoenix, who had seemingly become disillusioned with acting and decided to start a career as a rap artist.
After a clip leaked to the Internet of Phoenix rapping at a Las Vegas nightclub, public concern began to grow over the actor’s mental health, until it was later revealed that the whole thing was, of course, a hoax, merely being shot for this cinematic curio.
Accepting it as a work of narrative fiction, I’m Still Here is totally a first world problem movie, dealing with a critically acclaimed, handsomely paid actor who apparently has had enough with that lifestyle, and tries to find artistic fulfillment in another medium, ultimately failing. Is being good at one art form not enough for some people?
5. The Royal Tenebaums
The Royal Tenenbaums is a film about the titular family, all of whom are extremely rich and successful, yet, of course, are mired with personal anguishes that mean they can’t possibly enjoy their success. Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) has three children who manage tremendous feats at young ages – Chas (Ben Stiller) is a business genius, Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a talented playwright, and Richie (Luke Wilson) was a young tennis prodigy and an artist – and as adults, each is struggling to make sense of their lives.
Chas has become an over-protective father to his sons after his wife died in a plane crash, Margot is in an unhappy marriage, and Richie is in love with her (she’s his adopted sister). Royal, meanwhile, decides to fake stomach cancer in order to win back his estranged wife, Etheline (Anjelica Huston). Though it’s a great film, it’s also a quintessential first world problem movie – people have it all, and yet act like they have nothing.
4. Sex and the City 2
Though the first Sex and the City movie managed to be an engaging continuation of the series, the second film completely lost these characters in a vapid abyss. More than ever before, they are defined by consumption, living in exorbitant homes, going out to eat every five minutes, yet bemoaning the difficulty of their lives. Carrie has finally settled down with Mr. Big, but all he wants to do is watch movies at night, and who could blame him, given the ridiculously luxurious home he’s furnished the pair of them with?
Charlotte, meanwhile, has the two adopted daughters she yearned for, though the reality of parenthood soon enough catches up to her, with one of the cute kids rubbing baked goods over her mother’s ass while she’s cooking.
That Charlotte then has the nerve to shout “My vintage Valentino!” as though it’s at all sensible to be cooking while wearing expensive clothes, is the most head-smackingly idiotic moment of the entire movie. This is all before the girls end up shipped off to Abu Dhabi, lavished with a $22,000 a night suite, completely distracting from any grounded “drama” the movie might try to engage with.
3. Lost in Translation
Sofia Coppola returns in what is admittedly one of the best entries on this list, again taking a wealthy, comfortable, somewhat naive woman and placing her in a situation that makes her feel a little under the weather.
Lost in Translation revolves around Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a young woman in Tokyo with her husband, a celebrity photographer, unsure that their marriage is going to work; and Bob (Bill Murray), an aging movie star going through a mid-life crisis.
On the surface, both have comfortable, easy lives, though of course, money doesn’t buy happiness, and each finds in the other a little comfort. They sit in their relatively lavish hotel and pore over their problems, all while seeming to forget that it is this lifestyle that makes it their only problem. A great film? Absolutely, even if the existential vagaries do get a little tiresome from time to time.
2. Get Him To The Greek
To be fair, as much as Get Him to the Greek seems to comment on the emptiness of the rock star lifestyle, it’s also a totally silly movie that is almost impossible to take seriously. Still, the film presents to us Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), a rich rock star who has everything he wants, until the critical and commercial failure of his latest album, which sends him on a drink and drugs downward spiral, ending with his son being taken away from him.
It’s a prototypical case of a man who has it all, and yet has abandoned his personal connections; his son (who he later learns isn’t even his) is gone and he’s estranged from his father. This causes him to end up jumping from a Hotel roof into a pool, breaking his arm, and conceding that he’s sad and lonely. Jonah Hill’s Aaron is the voice of reason, reminding him that he has millions of fans, specifically several thousand waiting for him to play his gig, and he finally manages to snap out of his malaise.
1. American Psycho
Patrick Bateman is another man who has it all, a wealthy investment banker who lives in a gorgeous Manhattan apartment and spends ludicrous amounts of money dining at fancy restaurants with gorgeous women. He also happens to be a psychopathic serial killer, and the film keenly posits the question; what is it about rich people that makes them so screwed up?
The film, and Ellis’ original novel, are an expression of the caustic, toxic power of capitalism and greed, arguably best demonstrated early on when Bateman (Christian Bale) becomes angry at a co-worker’s superior business card, and metes his anger out by murdering a homeless man and a dog.
Though darkly funny, this is also a first world problem movie at its core; this guy seems to have it all, but because the guy next to him has more, it’s just not enough. The film is a deeply hilarious satire, though that hasn’t stopped it from being hugely divisive, many suggesting that the point the film is trying to make is undercut by its manic violence. Boy, these people should really read the considerably more screwed up book…
Which first world problem movies annoy you the most? Or am I just hugely insensitive to the plights of the wealthy? Let us know in the comments below.
This article was first posted on July 6, 2013