Watching The Menu, I was reminded of a subplot in Steve Martin’s absurdist satire L.A. Story (1991) involving his character’s desperate attempt to get a reservation at L’Idiot, a fashionable new French restaurant. After being humiliated by the chef and Maître d' at his bank, where they poured over his financials and determined that he could only order the chicken, he and his date eventually get a coveted reservation. When Martin sees the minimalist plating of his first course, he quips, “Gee, I’m done already and I don’t remember eating.” Prior to that, a major movie star played by Chevy Chase arrives with his date, and the Maître d' asks him if he would like his “usual table.” “No,” Chase replies, “I’d like a good one this time,” to which the Maître D responds, “I’m sorry, that is impossible.” Chase pauses, then asks, “Part of the new cruelty?”
The Menu is essentially a horror riff on the same humor, taking the absurdity of gastrointestinal snobbery to lethal heights (the cruelty here goes far beyond personal humiliation and the denial of a “good table”). The premise involves a group of wealthy elites arriving at a private island that is home to Hawthorne, an ultra-exclusive restaurant overseen with ruthless control by the famed Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). The elites are a cross-section of narcissistic one-percenters, including a pretentious food critic (Janet McTeer) and her editor (Paul Adelstein), a name-dropping washed-up movie star (John Leguizamo), a CEO (Reed Birney) and his cuckold wife (Judith Light), and a trio of skeevy investors (Rob Yang, Arturo Castro, and Mark St. Cyr). Also among them is Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), a desperately wanna-be foodie, and his date, Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), who is clearly skeptical of all the to-do being made about the experience. We immediately sense that Margot is somehow apart from the others, and it is quickly revealed that, unlike everyone else, she is an unexpected arrival, as she is replacing Tyler’s originally intended date.
After being led to the restaurant by the humorously ominous Maître d' Elsa (Hong Chau), the show commences, with Chef Slowik presiding over the meal like a master storyteller, with each course providing an array of sensual and emotional delights meant to elevate the experience far beyond the low, guttural act of simply eating. No, the patrons at Hawthorn are paying exorbitant amounts of money to have their meal turned into a performance, with a small army of cooks under Chef Slowik’s militarist thumb (“Yes, Chef!” they all bellow on command without looking up from their preparations) dutifully creating culinary masterpieces with elaborate names and backstories worthy of Shakespeare. It is all very rich, very exclusive, and, as it turns out, very deadly, as Chef Slowik has much more in mind than simply catering to his wealthy patrons.
To say much more would ruin much of the gruesome delight of The Menu, but suffice it say that the diners are unwitting lambs to the slaughter, integral players in Chef Slowik’s ultimate revenge scheme for the way in which their pretentious demands and soulless consumption of his art for their own self-aggrandizement has ruined everything that he once held dear. The Menu is, at heart, a skewering of the manner in which the monied classes destroy art through the very act of making it their exclusive province, a transactional absurdity made possible by artists who cave to the allure of being “in the club.” Chef Slowik’s “menu” is more than a listing of courses; rather, it is a one-night master plan to enact revenge on those who destroyed all that he loves in cooking, a kind of horrific distillation of high culture’s reliance on cruelty toward both those who can participate and those who are left out. Critical snobbery, advanced vocabulary meant to separate out those “in the know,” astronomical prices that ensure only a few can play—these are all the tools of the elites, and Chef Slowik turns them all against their practitioners, ensuring that everyone goes down in flames.
As directed by Mark Mylod, who has directed dozens of television series since the mid-1990s, The Menu is stylish and engrossing and sadistically enjoyable. Who in the bottom 99% (which is most of us) wouldn’t secretly (or not so secretly) enjoy watching such a display of cultural vengeance? The screenplay by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, both veterans of the satirical news program The Onion who are making their feature-writing debut, doesn’t entirely hold up in retrospect, as it isn’t hard to see that much of what happens is simply treading water until the final act. The indignities forced upon Chef Slowik’s patrons don’t have much rhyme or reason outside of their momentary shock value, which suggests that Reiss and Tracy hadn’t completely thought through the premise, relying instead on the broad structure of class-war satire. And it does hold up—but just barely—and if they had tried to push it much further, it might have all come toppling down.
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Overall Rating: (3)
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