THE MENU is unconvincing and simply bad

Introduction

Hello kings and kweens. This is a review for The Menu. The Menu is a dark comedy thriller directed by Mark Mylod. The Menu had an aggressively annoying trailer which is perhaps fitting for this aggressively annoying film. This movie sucks. It’s not only badly made but I found it generally insulting. There are three things I want to talk about with this movie. I want to talk about its novel storytelling. I want to talk about its performative class consciousness, then I want to talk about how it’s poorly made.

Background

The script for The Menu has been hyped because it made it to the highly prestigious “blacklist.” The Blacklist is a poll of movie producers which gauges the most popular screenplays that are not yet in production. The movies that make it to the Blacklist are a collection of genuinely great scripts like Edge of Tomorrow, Booksmart, or Spotlight but it also has a preponderance of crap. I personally can’t get over how The Imitation Game is historically the most popular screenplay from The Blacklist. That movie won best original screenplay which is really interesting since the writing in that movie is so fucking terrible. It’s one of those movies where every character talks the same because all the dialogue was written by some 20-year-old kid with no life experience and an abundance of narcissism. Which is probably why that movie is notable for being one of the most historically inaccurate films ever. This is the type of thing that’s rewarded on The Blacklist and Hollywood in general.

Anyway, this movie was originally attached to director Alexander Payne who you may know for his work on movies like Sideways, The Descendants or Nebraska. I don’t usually go into the labor pains of how movies get made because it’s pretty common for production to switch out directors or actors or writers or whatever. I mention Payne’s involvement because I find all of his work to be completely insufferable. Payne would be the perfect advocate for this film because I find him to be the embodiment of delusional upper-class neoliberalism. The Menu was made for that demographic.

Of course, Payne left the project and it was handed off to Mark Mylod. Mylod has primarily been a director-for-hire for HBO over the past few years. He’s worked on Succession and Game of Thrones. Specifically, he directed the Season 6 episode “No One” which just so happens to be one of the worst episodes in the series. You can actually see Mylod energetically go to bat for all of his crap creative decisions in an HBO featurette so we know with confidence who’s responsible for the quality of that particular episode.

Given its production history, maybe I was never going to like The Menu. It has gotten a high critical reception from reviewers who cannot stop themselves from using every food pun available to them. I promise to spare you of that here.

Premise

The Menu is about a celebrity chef inviting a group of high-status individuals for an exclusive food tasting event at a restaurant called Hawthorne. These individuals include a food critic, a washed-up actor, some finance bros, and our main character Margot who gets thrown into the mix last minute by her boyfriend Tyler. As the evening progresses it becomes clear the chef is using this exclusive dinner as an opportunity to express a societal critique on the high-end restaurant industry and the people who propagate its existence.

Novel storytelling

If there is anything I appreciated about The Menu it is how it framed its narrative. The standard narrative framing for a movie is to have a central protagonist the audience gains an attachment to in the beginning of the film. After the protagonist is introduced, the rest of the cinematic experience is anchored to that character’s involvement in the world. This is such a traditional storytelling framing that is used so frequently it’s easy to forget you don’t have to do things that way. One of the reasons I get excited about movies with ensemble casts is because it broadens the cinematic world. If you’re following a character who is meant to be a morally pure blank slate, then your interaction with the world is limited by what that character can reasonably get exposure to. Imagine if Lord of the Rings only followed Frodo’s adventure or if Empire Strikes Back didn’t branch Luke and Han into two different stories. You’d miss out on the things that make those stories unique.

The Menu drops as close to the beginning of the story as possible. There isn’t any setup for the characters, we immediately see them on the boat to Hawthorne and we discover the restaurant at the same time as we uncover their backgrounds and reasons for being there. The movie still has a stand-in for the audience through Margot, but the narrative is framed so we get a lot of exposure to the other attendants of Hawthorne, especially the chef played by Ralph Fiennes – who I’d argue is the most significant character in terms of narrative significance and lines spoken. The narrative framing is a meaningful creative decision because it makes The Menu feel very novel. It feels like a movie you haven’t seen before because we get immediate exposure to all the characters and storylines that are typically reserved for the edges of other films.

This movie is really about the chef’s societal critique of the restaurant industry and the film is portrayed to the audience as if we were another member of the Hawthorne dinner seeing this critique in-person. There are even title cards for each of the dishes served to the guests with quippy descriptions of how it lampoons the attendants of the dinner. The Menu did an excellent job at streamlining the experience to its central appeal. The problem is the central appeal of the film is hollow, hypocritical, and frankly sucks.

Performative class consciousness

The Menu’s societal critique is meant to be an appeal to class consciousness – bringing awareness to the class differences between people and how their lives and morals differ. In this instance, The Menu highlights how the wants and desires of people who go to high-end restaurants are completely disconnected with the value we are supposed to gain from eating high quality food. Like so many things corrupted by boomer culture, eating at or cooking at a high-end restaurant is moreso a symbol of status completely untethered from the actual value the food is meant to provide. In our era, prestige has become its own end. Acquiring the prestige of eating at Hawthorne – or working at Hawthorne – is the value we seek. Even if the actual food has no value and working there is miserable, it doesn’t matter because what we actually want is the prestige from being associated with Hawthorne. If this line of thought interests you, I talk about it a lot more in my video about the Oscars and contrasting those awards with Christopher Lasch’s book The Culture of Narcissism. My problem with The Menu’s attempt at critique is it is both cowardly and misplaced.

It is cowardly because the individuals it seeks to critique are all the middle managers of power structures who should truly only be looked upon with pity. The guests attending this dinner include a washed-up actor, a food critic, finance bros, and an old rich couple. I assure you, however easy it is to hate these individuals there is a far more contemptible person just behind each of them. For example, when it becomes clear the chef does not like any of the people he invited to Hawthorne there is a moment where he explains what it was about them that drew his ire and set him on this path to make their life hell. Some of these explanations have a convincing moral conviction, but the chef’s explanation for why he invited the actor I thought was emblematic of this film’s empty moral authority. The chef says he saw the actor in a film that was so bad, he decided the actor had no value in life at all. Which is like… ha ha? Everybody loves to hate on actors. I hate on actors on this channel all the time. But being an actor is a job. Absolutely no one in a creative field has the luxury of working exclusively on projects they love. In the same way many chefs probably started working at a diner or Applebee’s or whatever. It is not the chef at an Applebee’s who willed that terrible restaurant into existence. It is the moneyed financers and executive class who implemented these businesses that churn out crap food while paying worse wages. If the film wanted to convince me it understood class consciousness, it would target the actual class that’s responsible for all these petty hatreds its creators have developed. But it doesn’t do that, because the creators are cowards – or potentially simply dumb.

I should say it is true the film briefly addresses who financed Hawthorne in the first place. But I would also say – without spoiling anything – that entire sequence is a copout. It felt like a scene they threw in at the last minute in hopes it would close the door to an obvious criticism of who the film chooses to target.

Who The Menu chooses to target is misplaced because it seeks to make a villain out of people who are simply the result of their circumstance – which again was implemented by people actually in power. I’ll give one example for this point because I think it proves itself. Toward the end of the film, there is a gag where the chef presents the view that Americans’ love of s’mores is “everything wrong with us.” According to the chef, s’mores are so contemptible because they are highly processed, too sweet, and generally a crude snack that is a bastardization of what food is supposed to be. The Menu choosing to criticize s’mores enjoyers was so bizarre to me because it betrayed everything this movie pretended to be. The Menu shows us who it thinks it’s criticizing through its cast. They are snooty, rude, rich people. But if I were to say “Paint me a picture of the typical person that eats s’mores…” What does that person look like? Are they… rich? Are they… an adult? Are they in a position where they have other options and choose to eat s’mores on purpose? Because I have two pictures of people who eat s’mores. The first is children at summer camp. Which – maybe I’m wrong – but I’m not super concerned about summer camp’s influence on our culture. The other is poor people – or “working class” if you prefer – these people have an unpretentious palette and they like s’mores because they taste good. Enjoying s’mores is devoid of all the things The Menu focuses its criticism on. People eat s’mores because they like s’mores, not because they are a prestigious meal or a subversive dessert. They just taste good. You need to be an insanely delusional person of privilege to feel self-righteous enough to condemn people for not enjoying sweet snacks correctly. If anything the critique should be against whoever made s’mores in the first place, but the film isn’t that smart. It’s toiling away in its self-destructive whiny tone. The entire movie was like that and I found it insufferable and frankly insulting.

Badly made

Last point I want to make is this movie is simply bad. The literal filmmaking is badly made. There is a fight sequence between Margot and another character which is one of the worst things I’ve ever seen. The fight is clumsy and bizarre and totally unbelievable. You could call it a fitting companion piece to that awful chase sequence between Arya and The Waif which we also have Mylod to thank for.

There’s also a scene where Margot tells another character her name isn’t Margot it’s actually Erin. That plot point has no significance and never comes up again.

Closing thoughts

The Menu is a great film to watch if you’re one of those delusional people who complains about everyone else without realizing you’re the problem. I’d give this film a 1 out of 5. I understand some people who work in the restaurant industry enjoy facets of this film, but that’s a niche appeal. I’d consider The Menu an easy contender for worst film I’ve seen this year. It’s not just that it’s badly made, it manages to secure the trinity of neoliberal art. The Menu is hypocritical, self-serving, and dumb.

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