One of the joys of movie-going is the promise of temporary escape into lives more glamorous than our own. Director Lone Scherfig (An Education) returns to the class-conscious domain of British academia with The Riot Club, a slick expose of glamor gone wrong. What begins as a titillating window into youth, privilege and misbehavior turns into a dramatic indictment of a corrupt social system. Playwright Laura Wade adapted her hit play for the screen, and the result is a glossy, cautionary tale about unchecked hedonism and the cycle of privilege created by spoiled white men.

In a flashy opening montage, Scherfig recreates the mythical origins of the Riot Club, a secret society of Oxford University’s richest, best-looking bad boys. Based loosely on the real-life Bullingdon Club, the Riot Club was founded when a bewigged Casanova slept with a professor’s wife and met his fate at the tip of a sword. Ever since, the Riot men have committed themselves to the motto, “Nothing without joy, everything to excess.” All spiffy collars and tweed jackets, they parade around campus like a gang of Ralph Lauren models.

The club needs new members and the top candidates are Miles (Max Irons) and Alistair (Sam Claflin). Miles is a first-year student, but he’s already Oxford University’s most eligible bachelor. Handsome, rich and well connected, he’s not realistic, but that’s not the point. The Riot Club is a joy ride, not a character study. Miles hits it off with Lauren (Holliday Grainger), a pretty scholarship student and they establish a healthy relationship. Alistair (Sam Claflin) is Miles’ heartless foil. Cocky and dangerously insecure, he’s threatened by the easy charm of Miles. After capturing the attention of The Riot Club, their champagne-soaked initiation begins.

When the club arrives at a family-owned pub for their annual celebration, the tone of the film shifts. Until now, the club’s dedication to sensual fulfillment has been palatable, dare I say enjoyable. At the pub, their rudeness escalates from indulgent to sadistic. They binge drink, spew prejudiced remarks about the poor and taunt the pub’s kindly owner (Gordon Brown). When an escort (Natalie Dormer) shows up, the pompous Harry (Douglas Booth) asks her to service multiple men, publicly. She flatly refuses, and the ensuing conversation is one of the most provocative in the entire film. Rather than treat a small role in a small way, Scherfig and Wade give the escort the time and space to make a significant impression. It’s a subtle indicator that The Riot Club is about more than bow ties, booze and bank accounts. As the party becomes increasingly destructive, Miles loses touch with himself, and Alistair’s pent-up rage brings about a tragic climax.

The Riot boys cast themselves as “legends” but there’s nothing legendary about their blatant disregard for other people. Wade smartly uncovers and pointedly exaggerates the culture of disrespect that apparently plagues the British upper class. In the film’s cynical worldview, the amorality of the club isn’t confined to Oxford. It extends all the way to Parliament, where ex-members routinely favor ex-members, regardless of past misconduct.

The Riot Club is not a finely tuned anthropology of academia. It’s shot with a bright, pop sensibility and its characters are more “types” than fully-fledged human beings. But what it lacks in sober class analysis, it makes up for in sheer vibrancy. Scherfig shoots with a terrific sense of spontaneity. Mimicking the hyperactivity of her subjects, her camera flies through hallways, libraries and dorm rooms with youthful abandon. Wade’s script is witty, fast-paced and injected with just enough politics to make it smarter than the average college drama. The Riot Club has preppy schoolboys and Latin catchphrases, but it’s no rehash of Good Will Hunting. Ditching the latter’s feel-good coming-of-age lesson out the Bentley window, The Riot Club is a slick and cynical fable of boys gone wild.

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