Remember when I used to do reviews of stuff? I feel like it’s really been a while, but I do actually still have opinions about media once in a while, and last night my wife and I sat down and Watched a Movie Together, that being Searchlight Pictures’ The Menu. I miss movies; I used to reliably see at least thirty or forty a year, then I went into this long period where I only saw superhero movies, and now I don’t even give a damn about those, so it was a good feeling to be able to carve a couple of hours out of a Friday night to be able to watch this. Given that 90% of the television I watch involves cooking in some form or fashion, there really wasn’t any way I was going to be missing this.
And … man. I really didn’t know last night what I thought about it, and it took until taking a shower just now (yes, it’s the second-to-last day of break and 6:52 PM and I just took a shower) to figure out what I think. And the tl;dr is that if you watch the trailer and think Yeah, I might want to see that, then go ahead and follow up on that feeling, and if you feel like the trailer is for what seems to be a really schizophrenic movie that maybe can’t decide what it wants to be when it grows up, well, roll with that feeling too.
I can imagine people loving this film and I can imagine them hating it, although people who hate it are maybe a little easier to imagine? And one way or another, I think maybe they made the wrong movie. Want details? Massive spoiler territory from here on out, although it’s not like the trailer conceals a lot of secrets and one way or another the film tells you exactly where it’s going at about the halfway point and I think counts on you to not believe it in order to continue to maintain dramatic tension.
So! A short black line, and then spoilers ho!
The one thing that you might be thinking and be wrong about, having watched the trailer, is that there’s probably a scene where they discover that they’re eating people at some point during this movie. No! I am as surprised as you are that they resisted their urge, but no; I don’t know how much the food can be considered food, really, but there’s no cannibalism, intentional or not. What there is is basically a suicide cult among the head chef and his various kitchen and front-of-house staff, and they’ve decided that this is their last service and as such it’s the one where everybody dies.
You get no insight into how this decision was reached or how he (presumably) managed to talk everybody into this nonsense, and you will discover as you watch that the dinner guests are remarkably passive about their impending demise. At about the halfway point the head sous chef shoots himself in the head right in front of everybody, and Ralph Fiennes’ Chef Slowik literally says “You’re all going to die” to the guests at more than one point during the movie, so there’s no real argument to be made that they aren’t aware of what’s going on, especially when one of them actually does attempt to get up and leave and gets a finger chopped off for his trouble. It eventually turns out that everyone in the room has offended Chef Slowik in some manner or another (and some of them are really cheap; John Leguizamo’s character is a washed-up movie actor and apparently he was picked for death because he was in a movie Slowik didn’t like) except for Anya Taylor-Joy’s character, who is effectively a replacement +1 after her dinner date’s girlfriend dumped him.
There’s some effective creepiness here, and some fun satire of the way high cuisine works and (especially) the way major chefs are treated as gods and eventually expect to receive that treatment. Unfortunately basically every character in the film, especially the dinner guests, is some form of douchebag or another, really excepting only Taylor-Joy’s Margot and the hostess whose name escapes me. There are a lot of words that describe her, but “douchebag” isn’t one of them, I think. In some ways she’s the movie’s scariest character. And the thing is, a lot of what’s going on in the film either doesn’t go anywhere, doesn’t make any sense, or some combination of both, and the notion that any of these people just sit around and wait to die is almost too ridiculous to bear. Also, Slowik’s operation apparently involves both a sophisticated hacker and an actual kidnapper, along with one hell of a surveillance and intel operation.
The movie should have been about one of the sous chefs.
The problem is that Slowik is such a guarded character, and the chefs by and large are entirely faceless, that you really can’t get any clue as to why any of them might go along with this insane plan to, eventually, and this is not a joke, dress up all of their guests as human s’mores and then burn everyone involved to death. And the fact that the guests don’t fight back just doesn’t make any damn sense. No; what you do here is you make the guests mostly faceless and terrified and you pull us into the cult of personality around this chef, and you hire a more charismatic actor than Ralph Fiennes, or at least cut him loose to be charismatic, because Julian Slowik, as he’s portrayed, couldn’t talk a kid into eating ice cream. I don’t know if I should blame Fiennes for that, or the director, or the script, or all three, or what, but this is not the guy. Nobody dies for this dude, or if they do, we’re gonna have to get a lot more background as to why, and you can keep all of the satire elements without them descending into utter ridiculousness like this one does.
(A prime example: the guests pay their bills and are given gift bags, all while wearing marshmallow serapes and chocolate hats, before they are set on fire and killed. Slowik tosses off a line about how their gift bags each contain a finger from a guy who is drowned as one of the “courses” earlier in the film. I have no idea whether the line was supposed to be funny or creepy or what. It’s ridiculous.)
The movie should have started off with a hot young chef getting hired by this dude– go ahead and let Anya Taylor-George play that character instead– and go through a couple of normal dinner services and some moments with Chef where it becomes clear why people might be willing to kill/die for him before getting into the murder shit, and have her be the one chef who decides she can’t be part of it. Or, hell, leave her conflicted! You can still have your horror satire if you want. Or, hell, have her be the hostess, so she’s outside the dynamic of the kitchen and maybe not part of The Plan but still enough on the inside of everything that we can see why this guy might have made the decisions he did, and why people might have followed him, and why people might have decided to go ahead and be burned to death instead of fighting back, which … no, sorry, I can’t buy it.