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Arts & Culture

'The Menu' skewers the rich in new black comedy

The Menu
Eric Zachanowich
/
Searchlight Pictures
Ralph Fiennes stars as Chef Slowik in "The Menu."

The new film "The Menu" uses an elite and elegant restaurant as the backdrop for an eat-the-rich black comedy.

Director Mark Mylod and producer Adam McKay both worked on the acclaimed cable series "Succession." So if you are familiar with that, then "The Menu" plays like an obvious sort of extension.

"The Menu" lambasts the rich and pretentious over a a series of meticulously planned courses by Chef Julian Slowik (played by Ralph Fiennes).

He tells his carefully curated guests: "Over the next few hours, you will ingest fat, salt, sugar, protein, bacteria, fungi, various plants and animals, and at times, entire ecosystems."

The Menu
Searchlight Pictures
A course from the film "The Menu."

Such an introduction caters to their need to feel special, you can practically see some of them salivating over the exclusivity of such a night. And they are indeed special. Slowik has picked them for their hypocrisy, arrogance, criminality, and vanity. But just as they are about to burst with smug satisfaction he starts to reveal his true purpose and it have very little to do with the food on the menu.

Slowik wants to expose their true natures and punish them. However, there’s one person who’s out of place, Margo (Anya Taylor-Joy) and she's ruining the night. He confronts her and says, "In order to proceed, I have to know if I need to seat you with us or with them."

The Menu
Searchlight Pictures/Eric Zachanowich
Anya Taylor-Joy and Ralph Fiennes star in the film "The Menu."

But "The Menu" fails to make that us versus them dynamic work well because Julian is on both sides. He wages a class war we applaud yet he merits as much skewering as his guests. He is given a self-awareness regarding some of his flaws as he invites his own punishment, but his actions feel more like a contrivance of the plot than something motivated by who he is.

Maybe the film wants to challenge that us versus them binary dynamic and suggest it is useless. But much of the film is built on that notion and when it's taken down it does not offer anything in its place.

The problem may be that the film is trying to cram too much into its limited courses. Writers Seth Reiss and Will Tracy make the rich and pretentious the obvious early targets. But those are sitting ducks that in some ways are too easy to take down, so I can understand how they and director Mylod would want to look for some fresh layers to explore.

Ultimately, they seem more deeply interested in exploring how art is consumed and created in a society whose values have been corrupted. Slowik is, or at least was, an artist who had passion for his craft and invested in it with joy and love. But can you continue to make such art when the consumers have no real appreciation for what you make? Does catering to such hollow clients cheapen your art or somehow corrupt you? And how do you maintain your integrity in a world corrupted by money and power?

Perhaps if the film did settle for something more obvious and predictable it might have succeeded better. So kudos for at least striving for something more challenging.

The Menu
Searchlight Pictures
(From L-R): Mark St. Cyr, Arturo Castro, Hong Chau, and Rob Yang in the film "The Menu."

There are some meaty ideas simmering under the surface but bringing them up in the final course feels a bit too late. But "The Menu" makes an interesting companion piece to the recent film "TÁR," which also looked to an arrogant but brilliant artist. Both films have a dark but delectable elegance in their design and characters who want to control every detail of how they present themselves and their art to the world. "TÁR" is far more successful in both its design and execution but "The Menu" offers a lighter, perhaps more accessible consideration of some similar ideas.

"The Menu" looks gorgeous and sometimes displays a deliciously wicked sense of fun but it leaves you a bit unsatisfied. And one final note, Hong Chau's Elsa was one of the delights of the film as she delivered savage lines in the most gentle tones. I wish she was put to better use and not sacrificed to the erratic demands of the plot.

Cinematic pairings for "The Menu": "The Exterminating Angel" (1962), "La Cérémonie" (1995), "Parasite" (2019), "Society" (1989) and "Eat the Rich" (1987)

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