An exclusive restaurant's latest seating takes a dark turn.
Directed by Mark Mylod
Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Fiennes, and Nicholas Hoult
Review by Jon Kissel
Director Mark Mylod, writers Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, and producer Adam McKay all share in common their work on the show Succession, a series that I find exciting not for how much I want to watch the characters succeed, but in how I anxiously await their colossal failures and embarrassments. Set in the world of billionaire media moguls, the central family in the show take no pleasure or joy from their money, but instead are cursed by it. Their wealth protects them from anyone acknowledging how deeply mediocre they are, even as they’re destroyed by the insecurity of knowing the truth, and all their energy is spent seeking for the approval of their patriarch, whose inability to feel much of anything is probably why he was able to become so monstrously successful. As long as the characters stay close to their wealth, they’ll be miserable.
This exact same ethos is brought to theaters in The Menu. As the film goes on and Slowik’s grand suicide mission is revealed, all the patrons but Margot grow to accept their fate. The finance bros are vultures and thieves. The wealthy man and his wife are joyless and miserable. The critic struggles to find the tiniest of imperfections so she can have something to write about and thus stay in a world of exclusivity and self-importance. The actor knows he makes bad movies, and his assistant knows she leeches off him. The film gives the impression that the patrons are all confused why they keep being rewarded for their behavior, and after token resistance, become resigned to the justice of someone finally punishing them.
At least they wouldn’t have come willingly, unlike Hoult’s Tyler. Nicholas Hoult is a beautiful man who has been repeatedly cast specifically for his beauty. Knowing this, he’s repeatedly taken roles that mask his looks (Mad Max: Fury Road, X-Men) or exaggerate them as ridiculous (The Favourite). Hoult looks like himself in The Menu, but there has rarely been as pathetic a figure as Tyler. He knows what’s going to happen as he sails to the island, he cannot stop himself from taking pictures despite being hours from death, and he hires Margot as an escort because Hawthorne doesn’t seat solo parties, thus dooming her with him. Someone this loathsome gets an equally grand comeuppance, humiliated by his idol and sent off to hang himself in an anti-Lost in Translation moment brought to quivering life by Hoult’s crumbling face. There is something so evocative about a man who’s bought a piece of professional kitchen equipment but can’t cook.
It's easy to damn Hawthorne’s patrons but The Menu gets more muddled as it’s revealed that Slowik and his staff are going to die alongside them. Testimonials about what it’s like to work in a place like Hawthorne inevitably come back to tweezing herbs, arranging them in the perfect order as the chef de cuisine hovers over one’s shoulder looking for the tiniest imperfection. It’s art as an assembly line, dreamt up by someone else and executed, over and over again, by a replaceable staff member. The combination of stress, purpose, and the promise of promotion does seem to lend itself to cultlike behavior. Tying the front house to the back of the house requires an exchange of corruption. The wealthy patrons demand this kind of experience, and Slowik is able to provide it to them with a small army of workers. Like Pig, what he really wants to be doing is making cheeseburgers, but instead, he’s harvesting and fermenting and gelling, at least when he’s not sexually harassing his staff and driving them to insanity. However, where the Menu shows the customers weaknesses and vanities, it tells in regard to the staff, including with Chau’s memorable host. A more equal distribution between the two parties would’ve elevated the film, but the creative minds of the film have very little to say about the various helicopter pilots, chaffeurs, and personal chefs on Succession, too.
As the audience surrogate through the rarefied air of The Menu, Taylor-Joy serves as the key ingredient. Eternally unimpressed, Margot makes this all look absurd, scolding Tyler for saying ‘mouthfeel’ and rejecting Slowik’s pretensions. She is the embodiment of the fact that any ritual can be made to look silly by a single person naming it as such. The Menu could be called The Runway, and she would serve the same purpose. As the one unexpected part of Slowik’s plan, Margot is tested by him on where she should ultimately sit for the big finale: with the staff or with the guests. She is a service worker at heart, just as corrupted by the wealth of her clients as he is. The film’s best moment is the obvious one, where she breaks Slowik down by connecting him to a past that’s long left him behind, when he served cheeseburgers to diner patrons. Again, there’s no real mirroring between them and the film loses a chance for tidiness here, but Taylor-Joy is a strong scene partner for Fiennes, Hoult, and Chau even if her character needed more detail.
On celebrity chef Dave Chang’s podcast, he’ll frequently talk about this period of fine dining nearing its end. Travel shows from the likes of Anthony Bourdain and Stanley Tucci have conditioned people who care about food to understand that great meals don’t have to cost the median monthly salary, but can be found in strip malls or gas stations. The best burger in Atlanta can supposedly be ordered at a Chevron. The kind of meals exhibited in The Menu, minus the self-immolation, are probably pretty great experiences on an artistic level, but there’s something too in the simple joy bringing a friend to a great place you’ve managed to find for lunch, or of picking up groceries and cooking for people you care about. That’s what saves Margot’s life, and it plays a large part in Pig as well. Movies that heavily feature food and food service frequently get distilled down to a meal prepared with care for one or two people, and they achieve greatness by getting these scenes exactly right. Anything else is gravy. B+