Michael Douglas's New York home in A Perfect Murder is a 10,000-square-foot compound, not counting the top floor, with marble everywhere. Susan Sarandon and Ed Harris split their time in Stepmom zipping in a Land Rover and BMW between a sleek, two-story SoHo loft in New York City and a three-story 1860 colonial in suburban Nyack. Married on the Queen Elizabeth II despite no apparent income, the young Parent Trap couple grow up to reside at a sprawling sixty-two-acre Napa Valley winery and a luxurious London mansion near Harrods, both with full- time butlers. Meg Ryan's children's bookstore in You've Got Mail is one Dr. Seuss away from bankruptcy, but she still lives in a 1,200-square-foot Upper West Side apartment that would cause bloodlust in many a young doctor. The teenagers in Cruel Intentions, a modern reworking of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, tool around in a vintage Porsche and pass their adolescence in an 1898 French chateau.
Hollywood has always rewarded itself with fat paychecks and an excess of the finest material possessions platinum cards can buy; if they hit it big, fledgling screenwriters can pocket $1 million a script, and studio executives obsess over who's now driving a Ferrari Maranello. Now that luxurious lifestyle is shaping the cinematic aesthetic, creating in the current movie season an epidemic of wealth among seemingly everyday American characters that has moved from the vaguely annoying to the nearly pornographic. Only a fraction of the 35- millimeter money is central to the movie plots-Douglas, for instance, is supposed to be a Master of the Universe in A Perfect Murder. Almost all the remaining loot is narratively arbitrary, gratuitous Blue Book window dressing. Filmmakers drown their characters in spectacular real estate, designer clothes and swank cars, and still pretend that who we see on screen are people next door.
Onscreen excess is nearly as old as the movies themselves, but the new wave of profligacy bears a critical distinction. The rich and famous lifestyles showcased by Busby Berkeley and his Depression-era contemporaries were not portrayed as the reality of middle-class life. It was obvious fantasy, a mirage for the financially hungry. The rich, furthermore, were often depicted critically; protagonists were frequently working class, not robber barons. The character played by Tom Hanks in You've Got Mail is the owner of a Barnes & Noble knockoff that crushes a beloved family-owned business. Nonetheless, he's a romantic hero.
Obviously, just because Time Warner stock is soaring doesn't mean the rest of the country is better off; these films aren't reflecting the truth of a top- heavy economy. "Film can be a fantasy escape. But it doesn't have to blind us to what's going on in everyday life," says Steve Ross, author of Working-Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America. "We are becoming much more of a dual nation, a two-class nation. And yet these films are now saying that not only are we all middle class, but that the middle class is now closer to Cecil B. De Mille's wealth and glamour of the 1920s than it is to the poor."
"Today's movies help people to be unhappy with what they have," says Richard Sylbert, the production designer for The Graduate, Chinatown and Reds. "What they are saying is, 'You think it's good now? It's not good enough. This is where you should be going, this is what you should be doing with your money.' There are no poor people. It's offensive." It's almost as if Hollywood is implying people don't lead lives worthy of dramatic exploration unless they are awash in cash. From The Other Sister to What Dreams May Come, conspicuous consumption is now as de rigueur as dialogue. There's no reason the family in The Parent Trap has to drip money every step it takes (the movie's locations included a 9,000-square-foot faux Tuscan villa and not one but two Ritz Carltons). Indeed, these lavish movies naturalize …