Review by Mark Schwab
February 11, 2018
Comedy is hard. Dark comedy might even be harder. Dark comedy with a horrific main protagonist that no one could possibly like or identify with might be the hardest of all. Director Alex Salazar and screenwriter Gregory P. Wolk nevertheless jump right in with their feature film A LESSON IN CRUELTY but can't seem to get out of the starting gate with any real big laughs. The film did play at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, so maybe the French got the joke.
Justin Lebrun stars as Julian Hassole (as it's pointed out more than once, "That's Has-SOLE, not HASS-ole!" - nudge, nudge, wink, wink), a born-with-a-silver spoon bank executive who treats everyone with absolute contempt. No exceptions. But Julian does have his kryptonite in the form of serious daddy issues (he never thought he could please him among other neurosis's) which metastasize into an ill-conceived birthday party (one his father never gave him). It's a Roman-themed, toga party where Julian sets himself up as Caesar (yes, you get it) and his employees are his "loyal" subjects that shower him with "gifts". With this set up you can imagine this is all not going to end well for the boss as his employees see their opportunity for revenge.
Now this premise could...maybe...sort of work if executed in a more sophisticated way (John Waters or Neil LaBute could maybe crack this) but because A LESSON IN CRUELTY uses the most basic and blunt forms of racist epithets and stereotypes, none of the humor (or possibly attempted satire on the Great Orange President) resonates. It's all ugly mannerisms with no context. Characters just yelling insults and behaving like sociopaths isn't inherently funny without any sort of comedic or fundamental character foundation and I couldn't get my footing here. There is also a surprising amount of violence that is too "effective" to be funny and a weird subplot involving a young girl and her toxic relationship with her mother (who also is an employee of Julian's) that is acted, directed and shot as if it is a completely different movie. Mix all this together and you have cinematic vertigo for an audience.
Even stranger, all of this is actually executed quite professionally production-wise. In fact, impressively so. A LESSON IN CRUELTY looks great, is edited solidly, the music score works and Justin Lebrun as Julian shows that he's a very capable actor with a firm command of his character - he gives this everything he has. Unfortunately it's all in service to a movie desperately rolling the dice for clever laughs and sharp satire that keeps coming up with snake eyes.