Office Christmas Party
Another reminder that allowing your cast to madly improvise instead of actually providing a coherent script with a scintilla of inherent logic often leads to…
Justin Lin's "Better Luck Tomorrow" has a hero named Benjamin but depicts a chilling hidden side of suburban affluence that was unseen in "The Graduate." Its heroes need no career advice; they're on the fast track to Ivy League schools and well-paying jobs, and their straight-A grades are joined on their resumes by an improbable array of extracurricular credits: Ben lists the basketball team, the Academic Decathlon team and the food drive.
What he doesn't mention is the thriving business he and his friends have in selling cheat sheets. Or their drug sideline. Or the box hidden in his bedroom and filled with cash. Ben belongs to a group of overachieving Asian-American students in a wealthy Orange County suburb; they conform to the popular image of smart, well-behaved Asian kids, but although they have ambition they lack values, and step by step they move more deeply into crime. How deep is suggested by the film's opening scene, where Ben (Parry Shen) and his best friend, Virgil (Jason Tobin), are interrupted while sunbathing by the sound of a cell phone ringing on a body they have buried in Virgil's backyard.
"Better Luck Tomorrow" is a disturbing and skillfully told parable about growing up in today's America. These kids use money as a marker of success, are profoundly amoral, and project a wholesome, civic-minded attitude. They're on the right path to take jobs with the Enrons of tomorrow, in the dominant culture of corporate greed. Lin focuses on an ethnic group that is routinely praised for its industriousness, which deepens the irony, and also perhaps reveals a certain anger at the way white America patronizingly smiles on its successful Asian-American citizens.
Ben, Virgil and their friends know how to use their ethnic identity to play both sides of the street in high school. "Our straight A's were our passports to freedom," Ben says in his narration. No parents are ever seen in the movie (there are very few adults, mostly played by white actors in roles reserved in most movies for minority groups). The kids get good grades and their parents assume they are studying, while they stay out late and get into very serious trouble.