Imagine convincing a psychopath not to kill you by ordering a #5 with fries.
Really, imagine anything in this movie plausibly happening. It’s slim pickings.
I get that The Menu is supposed to be satire, I just don’t think it’s done very well. Or maybe it’s that it’s overdone. Sort of like the charred, listing double cheeseburger Margot’s served.
The Menu wants to be sympathetic to the culinary world and simultaneously hostile to it and gets caught in sentiment limbo. As an appetizer, we’re fed some piquant lines about the elitism of fine dining and the strain it puts on those in the industry. Chef practically sounds Marxist describing his alienated labor at the hands of fickle food critics, controlling investors, and undeserving one-percenters:
The mess you make of your life, of your body, of your sanity, by giving everything you have to pleasing people you will never know.
But how class-conscious can this culinarian be when he demands blind obedience from his staff? The cultish “Yes Chefs!” reverberating through Hawthorn’s dining hall don’t exactly scream equality. It’s true that he took up a couple of his assistants on their bloody suggestions, but that doesn’t quite negate the forced suicide pact — of working-class employees, mind you.
You could try to read in some Žižekian commentary about ideology and cognitive dissonance: Chef consciously rejects hierarchy, but given his years of conditioning in such a stratified setting, he subconsciously reproduces it. But that’s doing a lot of work for a restaurant whose service is supposed to be rated five stars.
If I were a foodie, I would say the film’s ingredients lack cohesion. For instance, why is Chef’s besotted mother present, and how is Chef’s grisly tale about his abusive father relevant to the larger plot? Both feel like they were cooked up by some amateur Freudian insisting Chef’s actions cannot be explained without a return to his childhood.
Even less palatable is the clumsy #MeToo moment shoehorned into The Menu’s intermission. It’s as if the writers were more concerned with pandering to the white-liberal-feminist demographic than maintaining a coherent narrative. Raking in nearly $77 million at the box office, you could argue it was the right call. But are we really supposed to believe that a woman who worships Chef and would gladly kill and die for him thinks sleeping with him is going too far?
Perhaps these are two separate, non-overlapping acts of love. But why stick around for three years after getting repeatedly sexually harassed? To keep her job, is the obvious answer. Yet this just raises deeper questions. How is it that she and the rest of Hawthorn’s kitchen of obsessive ladder-climbers are suddenly willing to lose their lives — not to mention their precious careers — to make a half-baked political point, for an unsympathetic cook with a flambé-singed hairline? The writers’ clunky move (notably absent from the original script) to credit our soon-to-be-deceased Survivor with the “pitch” to murder everyone can only be read as an attempt to retroactively make all of this digestible, but it just doesn’t sit right.
Neither does Anya Taylor-Joy’s Margot, who isn’t nearly as badass as she thinks she is. We get it rebel, you’re wearing a slip dress with combat boots and a leather jacket. They were doing that in the 80s. The smoking, the f-bombs, the not eating: it’s not so much proletarian as it is teenage girl. Bringing this petulant energy to her climactic strutting monologue, it’s hard not to cringe at her hamfisted moralizing and not-so-sick burns (“Even your hot dishes are cold!”). The idea that this performance would somehow move Chef to tears and inspire him to let her go is uncomfortably corny.
I won’t say there aren’t any redeeming qualities. The Menu is occasionally funny. Like when starstruck gourmand Tyler requests to be embalmed in the second-course’s condiments — a tasty joke, especially in hindsight. Or when Chef later calls Tyler’s concoction “quite…bad,” even if the delivery is lifted straight from Gordon Ramsey. Almost all the characters have their moments, notwithstanding how obvious their tropes are.
The film is also aesthetically pleasing, from its brambly island sweeps to its eye-catching food design. The final sequence that transforms Hawthorn’s guests into human s’mores is delectably costumed and staged. But good presentation can’t save an insipid dish, which is ultimately what The Menu is. I left the smoldering finale as one would leave an overhyped fusion spot: unsure of what I had just eaten, which wasn’t terrible, but wasn’t particularly good either, and not something I’d consume again. Despite its best efforts, The Menu falls short of becoming the next Parasite, although its warmed-over class commentary may give you a slightly upset stomach.