Download: Dining on ‘The Menu’ at Thanksgiving
For a long time, Thanksgiving was my favorite holiday. All you had to do was eat and not worry about what presents you were going to get, or how the ones you’ve given will be received. In recent years, the holidays have lost their luster to me. The consumerism and stress of the “most wonderful time of the year” has led me and my wife to essentially swear off the silly season.
Sure, we’d go to Thanksgiving somewhere and respect the invitation, but Thanksgiving and Christmas are otherwise afterthoughts for us. So, when I realized that due to my wife being out of town visiting her mother, and my aging parents not feeling up to host, I found myself alone on this turkey day. Well, sort of alone. I still had my trusty pitbull/lab mix, Dixon, with me, and I also had that which has always sustained me through times both good and bad: the movies.
As I sorted through the local listings to pick out a film between the two multiplexes in the “thriving” metropolis of South Bend, my eyes fixed on one film: The Menu. How perfect. I’ll go see a film about food on Thanksgiving. Of course, I knew The Menu was being promoted as a black comedy, and maybe that doesn’t seem so festive, but hey, I like it dark. So, onto Ralph Fiennes’ cutting board I went.
Thankfully, that statement about Ralph’s cutting board wasn’t literal. Fiennes (brilliant as ever) plays the fictional celebrity chef Julian Slowik, a man whose culinary talents have made him so exclusive that his restaurant (The Hawthorne) is located on an island that is otherwise deserted aside from Slowik, his staff, and his customers. But a certain rot has set in over the years with the great chef. His own beginnings were humble, and after years of serving only elites who can’t (or won’t) appreciate his artistry, but are the only ones who can afford it, Chef Slowik is in a mood for revenge.
Director Mark Mylod (one of the top minds behind Succession), sets a foreboding scene as soon as the guests reach the island. There they are greeted by Slowik’s right hand, Elsa (a pitchback-perfect Hong Chau), who gives the arrivals a tour of the grounds. The staff quarters look like a perfectly situated military barrack. There is no privacy and very little space between beds — all of which you could bounce a quarter off of and strike the moon. It’s all too neat, too cultish. Only one patron, Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy — who I’m quite certain only picks her parts by whether she finds the film itself interesting), finds it all to be a bit much. None of the other well-to-do types seriously questions the conditions of those who serve them. As we learn very early on though, Margot is a replacement guest. Her obsessively foodie date (Nicholas Hoult, who somehow manages to be sinister and obtuse at the same time) brought her along as a replacement for the woman who dumped him.
Margot isn’t supposed to be there, and Chef Slowik’s menu is built entirely around the lives of The Hawthorne’s attendees. At first, everything seems relatively normal (well, very high-end normal) as the courses start to plate. That is, until we get to the bread course. Slowik states that his patrons are above bread — a food for peasants — and serves them a breadless bread plate, with only the sauces one might dip the bread in. That plating may seem odd to those in attendance (particularly three hedge-fund bros, and Janet McTeer’s food critic), but nothing prepares them for the next move in Slowik’s dining experience. Soon, a staff member suffers a fatality, a guest loses a finger, and slow, excruciating mayhem ensues.
I know that all of this sounds rather grim, and, well, it kinda is, but The Menu is often quite funny too. There is a certain wicked joy that Fiennes speaks his lines with, and his thunderclap of hands when he announces a new dish caused me a quick fit of nervous laughter every time his palms smacked together. Hoult’s Tyler is both revolting and pretty damn funny in his desperate effort to curry favor with a chef who clearly despises him. The repartee between McTeer’s food critic and her toady plus one magazine editor (Paul Adelstein) is frequently funny too. Especially as Adelstein expresses an opinion on the dishes, only to have it contradicted by McTeer, which causes Adelstein to reverse course on his original thought without fail.
As The Menu descends further into darkness and horror, it’s not hard to find the film’s main theme on the subjects of class and food. Those who can afford to eat at places like The Hawthorne are the entitled, and in the way that only the wealthiest people can be, are both unappreciative (or even dismissive) of those who serve them. They worship money, things, power, and the right to do whatever they want. They live soulless lives.
Chef Slowik can no longer abide serving the worst of the worst, and so, he plans his grand guignol exit from the culinary arts. At one point, Margot says to Slowik that even his warm dishes are cold, because there is no love in them.
But then, as the saying goes, “revenge is a dish best served cold,” and The Menu serves up its dishes perfectly.
I have to say though, on my way home, I really wish I could have found an open fast food joint to sate my appetite for the special order cheeseburger Margot requested and Slowik cooked to perfection. I suppose that was part of the point. You can eat at places where someone has to explain the food to you, or you can just have a cheeseburger.
Sometimes you’re better off with the cheeseburger. Especially if you’re the only one who appreciates the burger and the effort that went into making it. Hell, in The Menu, the common cheeseburger may just represent survival.