That perky exclamation point sets the tone for “Coup!,” a story of murder, class struggle, One Percent entitlement and a global pandemic that nonetheless unfolds with all the eager, scrappy energy of an off-Broadway musical, minus most of the songs. The pandemic in question is not the one you’re thinking of — Austin Stark and Joseph Schuman’s puckish comic thriller unfolds against the dire backdrop of the 1918 Spanish Flu — but it also sort of is, as its study of wealthy exceptionalism in a time of national crisis is clearly intended to chime with more recent memories of regimented distancing and mixed safety messages from on high.
Starring Peter Sarsgaard as a wily cook entering the quarantined estate of Billy Magnussen’s upper-class journalist — and taking advantage of their isolation to start a servant uprising — this is quick, nippy entertainment that raises plenty of sociopolitical talking points without digging too deep into any of them. The closing film of this year’s Venice Days sidebar, “Coup!” even cultivates a faint air of adult pantomime with its confined setting and ripe performances — particularly from the wild-haired, hoop-earringed Sarsgaard, having a grand old time in a flamboyant role that is quite the opposite of his more prominent, prize-winning Venice turn in Michel Franco’s solemn “Memory.”
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Magnussen, meanwhile, is still possessed of those frostily handsome features that casting directors are loath to consider for heroic leads — and duly plays both “Coup!’s” villain and its patsy, as hoity-toity national newspaper columnist Jay Horton, whose performatively progressive politics are somewhat at odds with his vast inherited fortune. As America suffers legions of deaths and grim economic downturn as the flu rages on, Horton receives much acclaim for his intrepid reporting from the urban frontlines of the epidemic, as he candidly criticises the Wilson administration for its inadequate protection of the people.
There’s just one problem: Horton isn’t anywhere near the danger zone, instead fabricating his supposedly first-hand dispatches from the safety of his walled-off country mansion on New York’s Egg Island. There, multiple servants (or staff, as their employers oh-so-magnanimously insists on calling them) attend to the needs of Horton, his wife Julie (Sarah Gadon) and their two children, while living in comparatively spartan quarters downhill. When — disaster! — the Hortons’ personal vegetarian chef succumbs to the flu, their ad for a replacement is answered by itinerant Southern rascal Floyd Monk (Sarsgaard), introduced vacating his former premises with some relish, and assuming the ID of the slain body beside him, setting the film’s driving mystery efficiently in motion.
Arriving at Egg Island sporting bohemian attire and a distinctly non-deferent attitude, Monk swiftly arouses the suspicions of Horton and his stuffy, servile housekeeper Mrs. McMurray (Kristine Nielsen). Julie and the children, however, are charmed by his rakish eccentricities, and his hold on them — akin to a Scotch-drinking, poker-playing, deer-hunting Mary Poppins — allows him to take previously forbidden liberties with his position, inspiring his downtrodden colleagues, Black maid Mrs. Tidwell (Skye P. Marshall) and Turkish valet Kaan (Faran Tahir), to follow suit. Soon enough, to Horton’s huffy consternation, Monk has moved into the mansion, is using the family’s indoor pool and is eyeing up Julie, all while demanding doubled wages; meanwhile, the journalist’s professional standing is also threatened, his lie increasingly at risk of exposure.
The ensuing alpha-male face-off between master and rebel is drawn in broad, enjoyably cartoonish strokes: In this case, both men have an impressive mustache to twirl. But if “Coup!” is unsubtle, its outcome is never exactly predictable, while its politics are intriguingly elusive. Horton’s slimy champagne socialism may be a straightforward satirical target, but Monk turns out to be a pretty self-serving man of the people; one way or another, as Mrs. Tidwell bitterly notes, the servant class can never emerge triumphant. Viewers seeking to map the film’s pandemic portrayal onto recent events, meanwhile, won’t find any unambiguously sympathetic stance between Horton’s hypocritical public interest and Monk’s hint of anti-lockdown individualism.
It all arguably evens out into a pointed allegorical jab at the privileged American classes who advocated for a spirit of severe national sacrifice during COVID while sheltering in plush comfort — and if so, fair enough. But over and above such implied messaging, “Coup!” functions first as a romp: fleet and frisky at just 97 minutes, tidily but not ostentatiously crafted, and in thrall to the pleasurably low-stakes sport of watching one scoundrel outwit another. Here, even the last man standing is hardly a winner.
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