If You’ve Seen the Trailer, You’ve Seen ‘The Menu’

Pretentious, exploitative food-industry satire offers few surprises

It’s hard to review The Menu without talking about the trailer for The Menu. I see more movies in the theater than 10 people combined, but I still saw the trailer for The Menu before every movie I attended, no matter the genre. This went on for months, maybe years. When I first saw the trailer, I was very excited to see The Menu. With each subsequent viewing, I got less and less excited. The trailer was annoying. It had no mystery. It gave away everything. At a certain point, it felt like I’d already seen the movie. And I know I wasn’t the only person who felt this way.

Now I have actually seen The Menu, the movie, not the trailer. And I can report that the trailer was 100 percent accurate. The Menu contains a couple of minor twists and revelations that the trailer leaves out. But if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the movie. And the complaints about the trailer, that it’s smug, pretentious, and mildly exploitative, apply to the movie as well.

Like Triangle of Sadness but with a pulpier sensibility, The Menu purports to be a takedown of the overconsumption habits of the super-rich. A dozen privileged guests take a private boat to Hawthorne Island, where a master chef, played with studied humorlessness by Ralph Fiennes, prepares heartless, over-conceptualized dishes with “snow”, and gel, and liquids, and little squares of house-smoked meats. Little do they know that he’s marked all of them for death!

All of that is in the trailer. Also in the trailer is the fact that Anya Taylor-Joy, who, like in every movie in which she appears, pretty much dominates every shot, isn’t down for this dangerous game. She delivers snarky asides, refusing to eat the food, and catching the attention of the chef. She is supposed to be the audience proxy, but she’s really just a dark indie Mary Jane fantasy character written by two male writers. Taylor-Joy fills every scene with smoky red-headed goodness, but her character is really just a stereotype, a Suicide Girl with a heart of gold. Everyone loves a sexy, sardonic prostitute who only eats cheeseburgers!


THE MENU ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Mark Mylod
Written by: Seth Reiss, Will Tracy
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Fiennes, Nicholas Hoult, Hong Chau
Running time: 107 min


Even more ridiculous is Nicholas Hoult, who gets a lot of screen time in the trailer, but actually kind of fades into the background as the movie gets going, save for one scene. He plays a kind of incel foodie, the ultimate Chef’s Table fanboy. And I guess he gets what he deserves, but I found myself thinking: does a person this thick and naive and rich really exist? I mean, maybe. And then it occurred to me that none of the characters in the movie  actually deserve what’s happening to them.

The luxury food ecosystem and the people who support it are ridiculous, and it’s always good to mock. But the dishes that Fiennes presents aren’t outrageous or funny enough. The tweaks he makes to his “menu” are so dark that the movie veers away from satire and more into outtakes from the ‘Saw’ franchise.

This movie lacks tension. Nothing builds. There are revelations, but no narrative ups and downs. The restaurant doesn’t pick off its victims one by one, which would have been more entertaining from a storytelling perspective. The guests, none of whom deserve their fates–even the hedge-fund bros–realize what’s happening to them early on and, after a few bleats of protest, just kind of ease back into a shrugged realization. When the staff chops of a rich man’s finger because he cheated on his wife, he weeps like a baby, as most of us would. We’re all supposed to clap and cheer at this enforcement of sharia-style moral justice.

John Leguizamo gives it his all as a fading movie star whose main crime appears to have been starring in a bad comedy called “Calling Dr. Sunshine.” The cool kids who made and produced this movie seem to think such people are beneath their contempt. His attractive assistant, who joins him at the restaurant, must perish because of her crime of attending Brown University without having to make student-loan payments. Wow, what an asshole she is.

Pretentious food is pretentious, and the restaurant industry exploitative. The employees at Hawthorne live together in a bunkhouse with no privacy. They are, essentially, slaves to the culinary arts, an interesting concept that the movie doesn’t bother to dramatically explore. The TV show The Bear does that theme better, and makes restaurant workers seem like human beings with dreams and ideas, not hopeless food androids. Yes, society exploits restaurant workers. We eat too much. We gel. But spare us the heavy-handed moralizing. The Menu is like a senior-thesis play where the sensitive young protagonist, who can’t deal with their oppressive parents, puts a gun to their mouth in the end and pulls the trigger.

The end of Season One of The White Lotus does it better, when poor beleaguered Armond, enjoying his finall before he becomes the victim of manslaughter, says it makes him sick to watch his guests eat. They don’t deserve the bounty they receive. That makes the point as effectively, and more subtly, than any frame of The Menu. And unlike The Menu, it’s got a second season.

 

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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