Having enjoyed the documentary, American Factory—the first film from Barack and Michelle Obama's Higher Ground Productions—I didn't hesitate to watch their latest cinematic offering on Netflix. Leave the World Behind lists the power couple as producers, although it’s unclear what they contributed to this confused, and long, vision of the apocalypse, adapted from Rumaan Alam’s bestselling novel, and directed by Sam Esmail (Mr. Robot).
The Sandfords—Amanda (Julia Roberts, 56) and Clay (Ethan Hawke, 53)—have rented a posh house in a remote area of Long Island for a getaway from the rat race. Subtlety isn’t evident in this film. Amanda announces she's a misanthrope. "I fucking hate people," she tells Clay as the camera zooms in for a close-up of her hardened face. The next scene takes place in a car, with the children, 16-year-old Archie (Charlie Evans, 21) and 13-year-old Rose (Farrah Mackenzie, 18) in the backseat, hooked up to their devices. Rose is watching a rerun of Friends.
After arriving at the sleek, Modern-Architecture-style residence, the family goes to the beach, but they soon have to run for their lives when a huge oil tanker comes straight at them before running aground. Back at the vacation home, the Wi-Fi and TV are out. That evening, after Rose falls asleep watching Friends, Amanda hears something. "Someone's here," she tells Clay, "get a bat," as if her husband, who’s not capable of violence, could easily locate a bat in this stranger's house. Thus begins the exploration of race and class in the midst of a doomsday scenario in a story the filmmaker has no interest in getting to the bottom of.
There's a knock on the door. It's two black people—Barack and Malia… I mean G.H. Scott (Ali) and his daughter Ruth (Myha'la). Mr. Scott is slim and elegant in his tuxedo. As Joe Biden would put it, he's an African-American who’s articulate, bright and clean. G.H. tells them he's the owner of the house, which Amanda's skeptical of, even though he knows her name. They need a place to stay (in exchange for a partial refund), because New York City, where they live, is blacked out. The father and daughter explain that they weren't sure if they should knock on the front door or side door, which is apparently meant to convey a suspected racist reaction from the white renters.
G.H. is polite, but Ruth, with her folded arms and tight face, is full of attitude, as if she doesn't need their permission to spend the night there. "It is our house," she says twice, as if renters are obligated to allow homeowners to pop in for unannounced overnights.
Ruth comes off as privileged, arrogant, and clueless, although she's presented as a young, bold truth-teller. In fact, all four of the protagonists are "privileged," a reality that makes the telegraphed racial/class tension between them look forced. Good-guy, lit-prof Clay prevails over his bitchy, ad-business wife, and the Scotts are allowed to occupy the basement in-law suite, which Ruth finds degrading. She's a caricature of a real character, as is Amanda, whose vibes towards two black people in need are closer to Paula Deen than someone living in liberal Park Slope, which G.H. (who lives on Park Ave. and 81st) tells her is "affordable." Ouch, one more reason for her to resent him. Amanda tells Clay in private, "This doesn't seem like their house," and suggests that G.H. might be the housekeeper. Mahershala Ali resembles a housekeeper about as much as Sidney Poitier used to. But Amanda's prickliness in this context, even though far from credible, is there for a reason. Her microaggressions are required for the "resolution" to come.
That resolution, however, is on shaky grounds, as it relies on the support of laughable lines like this one, delivered by Ruth to her dad in the basement quarters on the first night: "I'm asking for you to remember that if the world falls apart, trust should not be doled out easily to anyone, especially white people. Even mom would agree with me on that."
Scary things, like planes falling out of the air, keep happening. The Sandfords and Scotts are forced to hunker down in their high-class bunker to ponder their fate. Rose is distraught that the crisis is preventing her from watching the final episode of Friends. Clay and Ruth chill together at the pool, where they connect, but the main event's going on with G.H. and Amanda, who repair to his music room stocked with hundreds of jazz LPs. That's when we get the Big Chill scene the film's been building up to. Out of the blue, Amanda's let down her hair. In a collection of about 1000 albums, she instantly picks out one of the few danceable LPs, which belongs to Ruth. The first lyric: "I wonder if she can tell I'm hard right now." That perks Amanda up. She gets down with the dance moves. Her enthusiasm coaxes G.H. into joining her, and the song continues: "You're dancing like you're naked. It's almost like we're sexing." And then, before they embrace, a female voice sings, "Step back, you're dancing kinda close. I feel a little poke coming through, on you."
Esmail sure likes his needle drops right on the nose, but they don't even kiss, because this film won't commit to anything. "We're drunk and married," says Amanda, and the poke withers. Still, the message is clear. Even irascible white Karens with racist tendencies can come around when they suspect the world's ending and they've hung around some black people in tight quarters. The scene's listless, rather than provocative, like the rest of this heavy-handed mishmash of a film.
The music stops when a horrible, screeching noise breaks up the consciousness-raising session. Archie's teeth start falling out, so Clay and G.H. are forced to go to G.H.'s handyman's house. Danny (Kevin Bacon) is a hillbilly, prepper type who probably has a bunch of medicine stowed away. He flies an American flag at his place, so we know what to expect—a bitter clinger, "ultra-MAGA" redneck wearing a Dallas Cowboys hat in New York Giants country. Even for Esmail, a MAGA hat would've been too on the nose, but we get the message.
Danny's armed and ornery about the intrusion, as he's focused on protecting his own, not helping a sick kid he doesn't know. His type doesn't believe it takes a village. He charges them $100 for a few magic blue pills that'll do what? Help Archie to stop losing his teeth?
I wonder why the Obamas thought it was a good idea to make a movie about the end of this country. Did they think that a story that doesn't even attempt to form some coherent narrative around the cause of this disaster would make for compelling viewing because it offered so many social insights about why the nation's divided? That would be ironic, as the division spiked after Obama left office. We're told, alternatively, that this disaster is an elaborate conspiracy perpetrated by an evil cabal or nation, or that "nobody's in control." Instead, there's endless speculation about what's happening, which provides no satisfaction. This is a Movie of the Week with a top-notch cast and glossy production values. Perhaps the Obamas' aura is so powerful that actors could read this joke of a script and still think it was worthy of their participation.
After the encounter with Danny, the camera shows Manhattan getting blown up. In the final scene, Rose has discovered a survivalist's bunker in a neighboring house and she finds the final episode of Friends, which she's watching as the credits roll. This isn't a spoiler for the ending, because there's no actual ending to this film.