Rich people behaving badly has become a genre of its own. From “American Pyscho” to “Wolf of Wall Street,” the antics of the 1% (and the drugs they consume) have become topic enough for nearly three hour films. Showtime has taken it further with “Patrick Melrose,” an five episode limited series adapted from the novels by Edward St. Aubyn. However, there’s something interesting about holding Patrick Melrose (somewhat) accountable for his actions. There’s still room to grow in this regard, but “Patrick Melrose” manages to be entertaining and a bit critical in the same breath.
Patrick Melrose (Benedict Cumberbatch) wants to quit heroine. Speed, cocaine and a variety of other vices seem more manageable. Upon hearing of his abusive Father’s (Hugo Weaving) death, Melrose travels to claim his body for the funeral. The memories of his past – his father’s abuse and his love for his mistreated Mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) – rage back. Patrick can’t shake the drugs and his memories all at once. As associates of his Father try and bring Patrick into the family business, Patrick’s drug spiral rages on. Only as he journeys to rock bottom does he realize the extent to which he needs help.
Benedict Cumberbatch reaches the best performance of his career so far. He combines the physical dexterity of Leonardo DiCaprio’s “Wolf of Wall Street” debauchery with the self-loathing of Nicolas Cage’s “Leaving Las Vegas” character. Patrick Melrose ping-pongs between crazed highs of speed and depressingly morbid lows of heroin like a demonic pinball machine. On a surface level, Cumberbatch whips up an absurd and varied amount of energy, vocally and physically, that owns every scene. Even more interesting is how he uses these antics to further delve deeper into the cavernous childhood wounds he possesses.
The show takes an interesting look at one damaged man in the 1% as he journeys towards sobriety. Patrick coasts by on his cocktails until his Father’s death sends him spiraling to rock bottom. From there, a decision to get sober forces, Patrick, to confront the demons that led him to this lifestyle. There’s a certain level of scorn for the “party hard” lifestyle of the drugged rich playboy. For every moment that’s supposed to be absurd fun, there’s an underlying concern for Patrick’s well being. A particularly tough scene involves Patrick going on a date destined for failure with Marianne (Allison Williams), a sober socialite. Patrick possesses no modulation which makes his drug-fueled descent painful and visceral.
Though Cumberbatch commands every frame like the ringmaster of a three-ring circus, there’s not a lot of other acts going on at the circus. Hugo Weaving and Jennifer Jason Leigh craft interesting sketched out portrayals of Patrick’s parents – David and Eleanor. Leigh in particular shades her character with more empathy and intrigue. Weaving plays everything a bit more on the nose. He’s a terrible father and very little more than that on first glance. Still, this makes the show little more than just a sandbox for Cumberbatch to flail around in drunkenly. As we explore more with his journey to sobriety, hopefully, the show finds more beats to play.
There’s a sadness behind the electricity present throughout “Patrick Melrose.” Our lead playboy is a man with terrible vices and demons. His search for a way out sidesteps some of the cliches that fall stories of opulent men doing bad things. Still, there is a lack of necessity to the endless scenes of drugged out antics spiraling out of control. Cumberbatch is engrossing, but other than trigger new flashbacks, many of the scenes feel repeated. Still, this leaves much to explore in Patrick’s arc over the upcoming four episodes.