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Last summer, a film called Pig that delighted audiences and critics with its delicate inquiry into the buried humanity in modern-day foodie culture arrived in theaters. It’s not possible that The Menu was written to capitalize on Pig’s success—the timing doesn’t work—but it sure feels like it. The Menu features similar themes, tropes, and settings. It sees itself as an expose of the bourgeois underpinnings of foodie-ism. It is organized into chapters named after dishes served in the film. It even features what feels like a carbon copy of Pig’s best scene, in which a clear-eyed truth-teller cuts through the bullshit of a pretentious chef and reinvigorates his dormant passion for real cuisine.
The Menu has all the right ingredients. It opens like a whodunit, with a boat full of pitiless rich assholes headed toward a special meal at Hawthorne, a secluded, fine-dining experience orchestrated by the enigmatic and charismatic Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). “He’s a storyteller,” whispers the highly strung Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) to his date, Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), the only guest who’s immune to the allure of such an exclusive experience. When the chef serves them a breadless bread plate—all sauces and dips, no carbs—she laughs and refuses to eat it, prompting a concerned, vaguely threatening visit to their table from the man in charge.
The film was directed by Mark Mylod, and co-written by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, all of whom worked on HBO’s Succession, a show that balances precariously between skewering and humanizing the rich. The Menu falls off the beam. It’s a slow-burn horror comedy with a populist bent, but its satire is slack. The assembly of guests include philanderers, tax evaders, and an aging movie star (John Leguizamo), who seems like a pretty decent guy with only a slightly inflated ego. Are their crimes equal? A more nimble film could have made hay from that ambiguity, but The Menu tries to skim over its complexities with bloody reveal after bloody reveal in the hopes that we won’t notice how little sense it makes.
“Chef,” as he insists on being called by his well-trained army of sous-chefs, is even harder to parse. He seems motivated in places by an unexplained desire to punish the wealthy for their moral failings. Elsewhere, he seems to harbor petty grievances. He claims to see the entire evening as a masterpiece of interactive art. Or maybe he’s just a run-of-the-mill sociopath. In certain scenes, it doesn’t matter. Fiennes is an eminently watchable performer, who’s particularly gifted at conveying menace behind a coiled grin. He’s the right actor for the role, but his work is wasted in a film that can’t figure out if he’s an avenging angel or just another bad egg.
Instead, The Menu relies on more confectionary pleasures: Its sleek, modern production design makes being able to afford dinner at Hawthorne seem like a lifestyle worth aspiring to (even if it gets you killed), its soft critique of the lifestyles of the rich and famous, and even its culinary creations, which the filmmakers would have you believe they find ridiculous but actually seem artful, intelligent, and even delicious. Honestly, the breadless bread plate sounds neat! This, of course, only adds to the film’s unwieldy ambiguity.
There’s nothing wrong with a film that wants to challenge viewers’ notions of guilt, innocence, and complicity, but The Menu’s contradictions are confirmed as accidental when, in a late scene, the most sympathetic character argues convincingly that purveyors of haute cuisine have killed food culture by turning what should be a simple pleasure into a painstaking intellectual exercise. They’ve become so enamored of their abilities, she says, that they’ve forgotten their primary purpose: to serve their customers. In a film that seeks to dazzle the audience with its cleverness, this is a case of award-worthy myopia. The Menu has craft, style, and flavor to spare, but it just doesn’t satisfy.
The Menu opens in theaters on Nov. 18.