Balding celebrity chef makes mid-life crisis everyone’s problem in ‘The Menu’

Ralph Fiennes, the legend, crushes it, of course, though I can’t figure why they’re having him do an American accent. Images courtesy Searchlight Pictures – that’s right, kids, this horrible movie about the crazy chef who kills everybody is a Disney property!

2/10 The Menu is a terrible, boring film that exists only to clamber up its own ass and turn left. It’s about a crazy chef who murders everybody, and the mystery is his insane and torturously metaphorical reasons for murdering everybody being revealed over the course of the dinner. It’s wild, but completely arbitrary in a way that makes my interest vanish as it goes onward.

In The Menu, Tyler Ledford and Margot Mills (Nicholas Hoult and Anya Taylor-Joy) join a group of a dozen diners for an exclusive evening at Hawthorne, the restaurant on a private island belonging to reclusive celebrity chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). Slowik, a self-aggrandizing cunt, has arranged for a specific group of 12 customers and intends to murder all of them, but he’s thrown by the presence of Mills, who’s filling in for Ledford’s recent ex.

The Menu is a tedious and obvious satire whinging about the business aspects of filmmaking. It’s almost post-satirical, like the goal was to make the heaviest-handed movie imaginable, even if it clearly doesn’t understand its own messaging. Slowik is a celebrated director, his menu is the film itself, and everyone he’s punishing correlates to parts of the cinema ecosystem that screenwriters Seth Reiss and Will Tracy hate – Ledford is an obsessive fan, Lillian Bloom (Janet McTeer) is a critic, George Díaz (John Leguizamo) is a sellout former movie star, there’s a table full of low-level mobster financiers, he even wheels out his alcoholic mother to lay into one last time. Slowik briskly explains in detail to each of them how awful they are, how they’ve mucked up the process of cooking with their politics and he’s so fed up he wants to kill himself, and, just do it then, man! Why do I gotta hear all this? What’s wrong with a bottle of Scotch and a handgun?

Slowik hates critics and kills one because they’re parasites who shape public conversation in the direction of their own whims instead of an artist’s intention – valid, we are – and he also hates and kills an actor who starred in a cheap, predictably bad movie that he blames for ruining the only day he, a self-employed and wealthy celebrity chef, decided to take off that month. Seems like you could have really used a critic’s help with that one, huh buddy?

It almost goes without saying how irresponsible The Menu’s treatment of suicidality is, with multiple suicides depicted onscreen and justified at length, to the point that the plot unfolds into Slowik performing his suicide note to a captive audience. It certainly went without thinking on the writers’ part.

It’s also worth noting exactly how boring of a metaphor food for cinema is. The two are almost completely interchangeable from a symbolic perspective, tied together throughout history from modern dine-in theaters all the way back to Juvenal’s “bread and circuses” comment about Ancient Rome. They’re both universal needs and manifestations of class, upbringing, the rural-urban split, comforting favorites from childhood – everything that applies to one applies to the other. Food is an almost omnipresent and always-symbolic aspect of film, this isn’t a secret. It barely qualifies as an observation.

Bloom’s line about the first course, “We’re eating the ocean,” is wonderfully emblematic of both the menu and The Menu – it’s so unprofound that it’s almost anti-profound.

The foreground for all this is the distressingly heterosexual relationship between Ledford and Mills. Despite openly resenting their evening plans that only he will enjoy, she is his dutiful arm-candy, and since she’s the perspective character, the entire premise of the movie rests on this trope of couples needing to spend every evening together. Ledford, a cartoon of a misogynist film-bro boyfriend, progresses from telling her not to smoke to slapping her hand to snapping at her like she’s the help over the course of the evening, all of which is accepted with a smile.

What is a good performance for Hoult in this context? The celebrated actor is suitably grotesque and sexist and entitled and pathetic. Is he completely nailing this shallow, unsympathetic caricature of a fuckboi, or is he failing utterly to insert any humanity into the part? Is it his fault the part was so thinly written, or is he responsible for elevating it? These are the kinds of problems movies give themselves when they focus so much on characters they hate and have no sympathy for.

The costumes are correct for a bunch of people spending $1,250 on a meal. The presence of fashion icon Anya Taylor-Joy, who was a second choice to Emma Stone here, becomes a significant metatextual element.

A late twist reveals that Mills is a prostitute, which makes Ledford’s obvious hatred of her make more sense, but raises many more questions. The plot hinges on her name not matching the reservation Ledford made with his ex, but she’s using a fake name anyway, so why didn’t she just assume the identity of Ledford’s ex? Slowik is torn over whether or not to murder her like everyone else since he didn’t plan on her being there, but then, why was he going to murder Ledford’s ex? If Slowik is so sexist that he’s willing to murder a woman just for arriving with Ledford, what difference does it make that he’s brought a new one, or that she’s a working girl? None of the metaphors The Menu spends 106 minutes exhaustively blowing smoke about make sense, but if they did, they’d stop making sense when you realize Slowik is literally willing to murder a hooker because he doesn’t like her client.

Even though Mills is the lead character, these conflicts that she specifically has with Ledford and Slowik are never addressed. Her role is instead to bear silent witness to Slowik explaining all his whiny, metaphorical grievances. As high-handedly as The Menu would like to condemn sexism, this is a pretty classically sexist way to screw over a female lead character.

Even with all this spectacular violence and crazy motivation, the gore is remarkably tame, which turns into its own problem. There’s such a difference between how much focus is on why Slowik’s customers are awful and deserve what they get and how much focus is on what they actually get that it reinforces how little The Menu actually thinks of its characters. On the surface, they’re these horrible, symbolic straw men, but under the surface, there isn’t even any straw. They can be killed off in all manner of ways, and the audience doesn’t really have to look at it.

You don’t have to look at anything in The Menu at all, in fact. You could just not waste your time with it. As a critic, that’s an option I’d highly recommend.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com. 

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