Film Review: "The Menu"

This review contains mild SPOILERS for the film The Menu.

The Menu, a 2022 comedy horror film, follows a young couple into the world of culinary innovation at its cutting-edge. It is one among many recent films that thematizes the issue of the extremely wealthy and the people who serve them, the most notable of these films being Academy Award winner Parasite.

Along with a group of other diners, including an egotistical food critic and her sycophantic companion, a group of tech bros who work for the restaurant’s angel investor, an aging actor looking for the next step in his career and his disgruntled assistant, and a middle-aged couple who are regulars at the establishment, our young couple, Margot and Tyler (played by Anya Taylor-Joy and Nicholas Hoult) arrive at the island restaurant of Hawthorn, all having paid $1,250 for a seat. All except Margot, that is, whose seat is paid for by Tyler, an enthusiastic foodie.

While the other guests are largely there to eat as they would at any other fine restaurant, Tyler is enamored with Hawthorn’s chef, Julian Slowick, played by Ralph Fiennes. It is Tyler’s worshipful knowledge of Slowick’s skill that leads the viewer through the courses as he painstakingly tries to explain Slowick’s genius to Margot and to catch the attention of Slowick himself.

The dueling triad of Margot, Tyler, and Slowick make up the main pillars of the film, as they represent the film’s ideological conflicts and are the most fleshed-out characters. Margot accuses Slowick of having become cynical and losing the fundamental love for simply providing others with a well-done meal. Slowick accuses Tyler, and the other diners, of ruining the artistry of haute cuisine by reducing it to mere technicality, and Tyler reproaches Margot for failing to appreciate said culinary artistry.

Tyler’s short monologue about culinary art, delivered as a man-splanation to Margot, is quite compelling in its own right—Slowick is playing with the very stuff of life, as he says to her, suggesting Slowick’s role as a sort of moral or avenging force.

Margot treads between these two, caught between Slowick’s invitation to be a part of the avenging class of service workers, on account of her background as an escort, and Tyler’s insistence that she appreciate this experience of culinary artistry he has ostensibly gifted her. She ultimately challenges them both, Tyler for his fetishization of haute cuisine’s technics and Slowick for his obsessive, soulless kitchen rigor that creates the foodies of the world like Tyler.

Ultimately, these three characters make the film worth the price of admission, thanks to pithy lines such as Slowick’s admonishment of the guests: “You shall have less than you desire and more than you deserve,” taking a moral stance more akin to a Greek god dispensing appropriate punishment than a class-conscious revolutionary.

But it is here, at the moral bottom line of the film, that it falters. It is clear that Slowick is as violent and cruel as his guests are petty, oblivious, and privileged. If this is a play on capitalist exploitation, are we to understand that Slowick’s extreme critique, as it were, of wealth accumulation is somehow unsympathetic? That our identification with his reaction to the real injustices of capitalism is somehow wrong because he himself is a cruel person?

It is difficult to interpret The Menu as a punishment of the wealthy that we are meant to enjoy vicariously, as Slowick is so villainized. Margot shows him to be a cynic and an extremist, which indeed he is. We cannot help but agree with her that he himself has lost the love of serving others he accuses his guests of lacking. However, Margot herself does not redeem Slowick’s critique of the wealthy elites, perhaps because she is as much a victim of Slowick’s violence as she is exploitation by the wealthy (one of the diners is a former client of hers).

No character rises convincingly, or sympathetically, to champion the position of the servers—the working class—against those who exploit them. In fact, the servers and Slowick voluntarily self-immolate—not a very promising solution to the problems of capitalist exploitation.

On the other hand, the severs and chefs of a top restaurant worldwide can hardly be considered representative of the general class of servers who work in the food industry around the world. It may be overreaching to read into the Hawthorn crew as a general representation of servers and cooks worked to the brink daily. As he prepares the guests’ dessert, Slowick rails against the global network of agricultural industry which disconnects us from our food, this feels like an afterthought shoved into the film’s climax.

Supposedly, Hawthorn is based on restaurants like Noma, a three-Michelin star restaurant in Denmark that closed last year, which paired locally grown ingredients with avant-garde culinary style. Indeed, touring the island and Hawthorn’s food sources is one of the film’s many visual treats, along with the mouth-watering, if unfamiliar, courses served throughout.

This rarified dining experience might make a poor point of reference for a general statement about the service industry, but the timeless metaphorical pairing of food and wealth supplies a rich setting for a classical tragicomedy.

Perhaps, then, the film is more of a satire of what Tyler and Slowick represent: a foodie’s obsession with the aesthetics and technics of a field in which he has no personal experience and the celebrity chef who make such an obsession possible, where both characters represent opposing sides of a superficial relationship with the stuff of life.

A third interpretation of the film, providing maybe the most convincing experience, would position Slowick almost as a deity, visiting poetic justice upon the judged, recalling the Greek myth of Tantalus: after offending the gods with, shall we say, food-related sacrilege, Tantalus is punished for eternity by standing in a pool of chin-height water and food just out of reach, ensuring that the food and drink he so desperately desires are agonizingly inaccessibly.

Perhaps Slowick is a moral judge in the style of the Greek gods, and Margot is the hero clever enough to wriggle out of his trap. This moral frame seems the most satisfying, although it still leaves the film wanting for a more gratifying final punch. The guests are made just sympathetic enough that their punishment is not particularly triumphant, and Slowick is just cruel enough that identifying with his contempt for the wealthy is not encouraged.

Margot’s escape comes after a somewhat exciting confrontation with Slowick, but the middle ground she represents—that is, self-preservation—is not as compelling as the grandiose ideas swirling around her. Her triumphant indulgence in the cheeseburger she forces Slowick to make her seems almost a pathetic indictment of the American consumer: as long as I’ve got my quick fix, all moral conflicts will fade away. Or go up in flames, in this case.

In the end, though, most viewers can probably agree on one thing: a cheeseburger does sound pretty good right now.

By Parker Evans | Library Assistant Ⅲ, Business, Science, and Technology Department, Central Library