This petulant and mean-spirited foodie satire is undercooked
The setup for The Menu is pulled straight from an Agatha Christie whodunnit, but there is little mystery in this undercooked and mean-spirited satirical horror from producer Adam McKay. A group of well-heeled diners board a luxury yacht to a remote island, home of the most exclusive restaurant in the world. It’s one of those temples of foodie-dom where the vegetables are grown on-site, the meat is cured in a custom-built Scandinavian smokehouse, and the resident goats accompany the guests on their hike to the dining room. All of this is overseen by superstar chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), viewed as something akin to a god in the food world, particularly by rabid fanboy Tyler (an always terrific Nicholas Hoult) who has dropped $1200 a head for this experience along with his companion Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy). Margot finds all of this a bit ridiculous, but since this evening is on Tyler’s dime (in more ways than one) she’s happy to go along — that is until the meal begins.
Poking fun at the pretentiousness of the rich seems to be the hot theme in cinemas this fall with titles like Triangle of Sadness and Glass Onion reminding us that, yep, rich people suck. It’s certainly one of McKay’s favorite subjects, which is no doubt why he brought on veteran Succession director Mark Myloid and co-writer Will Tracy to expand his crusade to haute cuisine, with its torturously pompous deconstructions and trendy foams. More precisely the film takes aim at the types of people who are privileged enough to enjoy such rarified experiences. There’s the impossibly snobbish food critic (Janet McTeer) and her sycophantic companion (Paul Adelstein), the pharma bros (Rob Yang, Arturo Castro, and Mark St. Cyr) who view the meal as reinforcement of their clout, the has-been movie star (John Leguizamo) and his put-upon personal assistant (Aimee Carrero), and the rich WASP couple (Reed Birney and Judith Light) who feel entitled to the meal as the spoils of their class.
The film is laid out in chapters according to each course of the meal, with title cards providing some of the film’s biggest laughs as they describe each dish with comical specificity. The food, styled by Kendall Gensler and beautifully photographed by Peter Deming, would be right at home on any given episode of Chef’s Table. Most of the diners treat the meal as an intellectual exercise, Tyler treats it as a religious experience, while Margot is just hungry. Right from the start there’s a definite air of hostility to the evening, from the chilly efficiency of the restaurant’s host (a perfectly-pitched Hong Chau) to the military-like precision of the kitchen team to the mysterious, sour-faced old woman slugging back $200 pinot at a table in the corner. And then there’s the cooly detached Chef, introducing each course with increasingly cryptic preambles. All of it is leading up to a moment of shocking violence when Slowik’s true intentions become clear: by the end of the evening everyone in the restaurant — staff included — is going to die.
From this point the story takes on the more predictable beats of a horror film as the guests figure out how to survive Slowik’s deadly design. Anyone looking for deeper meaning behind Slowik’s motives beyond “rich people suck” will be disappointed, as Tracy and co-writer Seth Reiss use the opportunity to weave a superficial satire about how capitalism destroys art. Slowik feels no joy in cooking anymore because food culture has become appropriated by dilettantes and influencers, himself forced to sell out by fat-cat investors.
The whole film gives off a petulant edgelord cruelty that makes it difficult to feel sympathy for any of its characters, which makes their lack of depth feel like a feature and not a bug. All of Slovik’s victims, with maybe the exception of the pharma bros and Tyler (whose true motivations are the only genuinely juicy portion of the film’s revelations), are just kind of garden-variety shitty. But shitty enough to evoke catharsis at their torture and death? Hardly. And that’s to say nothing of the restaurant’s staff, who are given little to no backstory despite their cult-like devotion to Slowik. A movie about the horrors of working at a cultish restaurant on a remote island is something I would be very interested to see, but instead The Menu chooses to lecture us on the corrupting influence of money on the purity of art, though even that message is muddled. Is it condemning people who don’t properly appreciate art, or is it condemning the artist for selling out, or both? The film’s themes are as ephemeral as a dollop of foam, and by the end of its too-long runtime you’ll still be craving something more nourishing to chew on.
This review was made possible by donations to the Fall Movie Fundraiser for Indigenous Abortion Access. Missed your chance to donate? You still can!
Kristen Grote is a freelance film and culture critic. Follow her on Twitter and Letterboxd.
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