“Please don’t smoke, it’ll ruin your palate,” are the first words spoken in The Menu. Yes, you can surmise the person speaking those words is an insufferable snob who takes this all too seriously. Also, yes, the person smoking is a cipher intended to relate to the average audience member. However, simply knowing what these… uh, dishes are doesn’t ruin the taste once we get to enjoy them. For director Mark Mylod’s film is a biting satire on not just the food industry but our obsession with critique and curated consumption. We’re not just talking about foodies here – this is for the people who only watch the streaming service MUBI, and make sure everyone knows about it. It’s for the people who only game on a PC, because it’s the more rewarding gaming experience. It’s for the people who only read real novels, they wouldn’t be caught dead with a Percy Jackson hardcover. We’re all a little obsessed with what we like, and we want people to know what we like is of high quality.
The shindig bringing this all together is a dinner party on a remote island, hosted and served by the prestigious restaurant Hawthorne. It’s a fancy affair, filled with only the elite and disgustingly wealthy. Except Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), who’s a bit more small town compared to everyone around her. She’s here to tag along with her boyfriend, Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), who’s fitting the bill and can’t contain his fanboy energy for the head chef – the mysterious Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). The veteran masterchef has prepared a multi-course extravaganza to satisfy some of the most acquired taste buds on the planet. For these entitled millionaires have earned a night of fine dining, where absolutely nothing bad happens, right? Right??!
Mylod, and DOP Peter Deming, have crafted a rhythmically sound piece of visual fare. The camera moves with confidence, even as the viewer has trepidation for what’s coming or what’s behind each mysterious door. The island and restaurant both look high-class, yet forbodingly cold and workmanlike. But, you know, I would have liked to see more vibrant colors onscreen. That would really bring out the, uh, flavor and TEXTURE of the cinematography.
The script, written by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, has fun with the cliches of foodie culture, most widely seen on the Food Network. One conneseuir is reprimanded for using the reprehensible term ‘mouthfeel’. The attendees go overboard to praise obscure, ocean-based dishes. At one point, the staff serve an entree that is growing from a rock. A fucking rock is on the table. Later, the staff plays a prank by not serving their world-famous bread, and the guests begrudgingly go along. Slowik could serve them a jar of piss, and they’d probably remark how the acidity compliments the flavor. Margot looks at these socialites as if they all have 3 heads. But Tyler attempts to appeal to her – Chef Slowik is a more important artist than someone like an athlete, he argues. The reason being is that Slowik is touching and working with “the raw ingredients of life itself.” Ah, the old “this piece of art is more important than your art” card. I seem to remember the lauded Meryl Streep making a similar declaration about MMA and football not too long ago. This touches on our tendency to compete with one another by way of our own life experiences. One activity may give someone reason to live, while the same endeavor could bore the hell out of the next observer. Margot herself is occasionally representative of the latter, rebuking Hawthorne’s ideology that these science fair projects are an acceptable way to consume food.
What the elite in this movie attempt to do is establish rigid hierarchies for consumption and entertainment. It isn’t enough that Tyler enjoys the fungai on a stick, or whatever it’s called, it must also be established that this is important work which is objectively superior to notable alternatives. This is what makes the movie such a fun candy box of ideas, as it confronts our insecurities and misguided beliefs about art and consumption. These ideas often take shape by way of how society is segmented through class and access. When you’re this rich, perhaps you feel it isn’t right to eat a burger and fries every night – you need an exclusive experience to justify that wealth. The exclusivity is a major draw of this – if everyone could dine at Hawthorne, it wouldn’t be special anymore. Then, the elites would have to find a new feeling to chase.
I enjoy how the movie gradually builds tension through all aspects of the filmmaking canvas. One such category is sound design – Slowik’s proclivity to announce the start of each course with a startling clap turns into a motif that Mylod extracts great use out of. It provides just the right amount of PUNCH the meal needs, lest we become too comfortable.
But the satire has two sides to this coin. Margot is unphased by her new level of access, which initially draws the ire of our esteemed masterchef. Yet, the motive behind his interest in Margot takes her by surprise. Underlying the actions of Slowik and his crew speaks to the precarious mental health that afflicts many in the service industry, even this far up the economic ladder. It’s been a big year for our chefs getting their day in the sun, as Hulu’s The Bear also tackled the mental hurdles these culinary masters must endure. The Menu argues there must be a level of contempt that builds in these individuals, as they’re forced to ponder just why they continue to perform for the most privileged. The skill may be there, but the thrill is very much gone.
Ultimately, even our greatest artists desire appreciation and acknowledgement. Of course the Meryl Streeps of the world don’t want to share acclaim with other avenues of entertainment – that is reserved for her interests. Likewise, Slowik not only believes he is the best chef alive, but he has worked tirelessly to perfect his skills, yet doesn’t feel the appreciation on the other end. One of his long-tenured guests can’t even remember any of the past dishes they’ve “enjoyed,” they’re only here for clout.
The film employs an eclectic cast of character actors, even if they aren’t always optimally utilized. I enjoyed John Leguizamo’s weird parody of a washed up celebrity with a filmography of lowbrow turkeys. He knows he’s a fraud, and we know he knows it. Hong Chau (Downsizing, Watchmen) throws yet another heater as Slowik’s right-hand lady, but she isn’t afforded enough screentime. Ditto for vets like Janet McTeer, Reed Birney, and Judith Light. Sometimes, these ingredients are used to improve the meal, but other times they feel like garnishments.
By the story’s end, replete with a few well-worn tropes about the innocence of populist consumption (you get one guess on the type of restaurant Slowik started at, you only need one), The Menu skewers the idea of the rich controlling the narrative and lives that make up fine dining. I don’t think this is a critique against exotic cuisine, but it is a right hook against the attitudes this culture of experimentation can foster. For what Mylod is really arguing is that these prognosticators of taste are using their power and money to make the working class feel lesser than. But forget the class optics; these put downs happen whenever a celebrity gets on an Awards show, and disparages another profession for no valid reason. It happens online, when aggressive fans get a little too judgmental about what other people are watching or reading. It’s snobbery, an easily identifiable sign of an inflated ego. And The Menu would like to poke a few holes in those balloons.
Fiennes is riveting in this role, and the movie is bolstered by strong turns from Taylor-Joy and a deliciously smarmy Nicholas Hoult. It’s a character piece that hits hard because the actors believably convey a range of ideologies, some harmful and some hilarious. This is a movie that occasionally flirts with horror elements, but it’s truly a dark comedy. After awhile, we’re not anticipating any scares – we’re waiting for the next laugh. The Menu isn’t going to change the world. It won’t defeat the rich, or eradicate misguided views about highbrow biases vs populist consumption. But, we can at least laugh about the absurdities and contradictions. This is a movie where a group of rich foodies paid thousands of dollars to… not eat. Joke’s on them.