The Movie ‘The Menu’ Is a Disappointing Class Commentary
Foodie culture, murderous rampages, and mixed messaging
Seth Reiss and Will Tracy's satirical romp The Menu is about the maniacal Chef Slowik enacting revenge on those he perceives as slighting him. It centers around 12 customers being ferried to the private island to pay for a $1,000+ per plate dining experience. Throughout the night, it quickly becomes apparent that none of them are leaving alive.
The Menu advertised itself as grilling the expensive lifestyles of the rich and powerful. "I have to know if you are with us or with them?" Chef Slowik asks a patron in the trailer. Commentary on wealth is everywhere in this film, but it feels very incomplete. There were entire segments where it was difficult to know what the point was — all of its messaging complicated by the fact that Chef Slowik isn't the downtrodden revolutionary he believes himself to be, but a tyrant.
The film spends so much time being clever that it ends up serving a very undercooked story.
The most generous way to view this film is a deconstruction of foodie culture. The film is filled with fun lines such as, "Do not eat….Taste" and other phrases that lampoon real-life, high-end dining. Some of Slowik's victims are a notorious food critic who is depicted as a pedantic blowhard, his angel investor, and a fan who knows everything about food but cannot cook. These are caricatures that are fun to laugh and roll your eyes at.
However, it's clear that class commentary is something this text wants to talk about. Early on, the wealthy guests are given a seafood meal, and one of them not so subtly tells us that they are "eating the ocean." The restaurant makes bread (described as the food of the common man) only to make a show of not serving it to the guests. As Slowik lectures. "But you, my dear guests, are not the common man. And so tonight… you get no bread."
Slowik perceives himself as a victim of these entitled guests, a service worker who has had the joy of his work stolen from him. There is a scene where he monologues to a sex worker — someone invited to this gathering last minute, but Slowik still intends to kill anyway — where he tells her that as a fellow worker, he understands her pain. "No, I don't need details," he shushes, "You know, I… I know what a bad customer is."
Yet, I want to stress this, Slowik isn't that poor service worker anymore. He is a businessman and a cult leader. All his staff treats him with divine reverence as he claps for them to move in unison. They sleep in stark quarters while he sleeps in a more spacious cottage. There is a scene where guest Margot has to fight off Slowik's maître d'hôtel Elsa, because she erroneously believes that Margot will replace her as Slowik’s favorite. Slowik's kitchen is a toxic environment, and he is just as abusive, perhaps even more so, than the men and women around his table. This cult connection is something that writer Will Tracy admits to directly, saying in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter:
“A lot of kitchens in restaurants like this — especially this restaurant because it’s on an island and they live on that island — function the same way that a cult functions. They try to limit your access to the outside world and in doing so, they limit the sources of approbation and spiritual nourishment that you get from family, friends, cultural pursuits and communal pursuits. They replace all of that with the approbation and, at times, very harsh criticism of one single figure.”
Slowik is someone who thinks he's a victim, even quoting MLK Jr's famous line that "freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor. It must be demanded by the oppressed." The film treats this sentiment both unseriously and seriously at the same time.
For one, Slowik receives cringe looks from one of the film's only brown characters because, well, the idea that he is oppressed is ridiculous. Slowik is an abusive person who psychologically and, in some cases, sexually abuses his staff. He thinks that this grand, murderous gesture somehow will be atonement for his past mistakes — that it's somehow justice — but it's more of an easy out than proper accountability. Slowik's ultimately a bitter, wealthy white man angry that he no longer financially controls his restaurant (what he thinks should be his) and so is taking everyone out with him.
And this is something the film's creatives would all admit to, calling his performance "bullshit," but the film's narrative never goes far enough to place him in the explicit villain role alongside the other guests. That's not just me being hyperbolic. During an interview, Seth Reiss said that while perceiving him as a villain is valid: "We don't see Slowik as a villain…In The Menu, I think there are no heroes or villains."
And so if he's not entirely in the wrong, then in some ways, Slowik's punishment of these rich people at the end of the film (i.e., he burns them alive as human smores) is supposed to be just desserts. These are the people "eating the ocean," after all. Maybe they should all go up in flames?
And don't get me wrong, some terrible rich people are dining at Slowik's restaurant that night. The tech bros and a nondescriptive, older finance guy don't earn much sympathy. However, there is also a pedantic food critic whose crime is leaving bad reviews, her yes-man editor, a vain actor, his assistant whose crime is she didn't have to take out student loans, and a wife trapped in a loveless marriage. These people might have personality flaws, but most are still working professionals, not the capitalists "eating the oceans," and certainly no worse than Slowik himself. It's a type of class commentary based more on vibes than criticizing the capitalist system [email protected] over the world. As Alison Stine writes in Salon:
“Multiple yes men and women face the wrath of the chef, which doesn’t seem fair, nor something the character who expresses repeatedly he had to pay his dues with “s**t work” would carry out. But Julian’s empathy extends only to traditionally attractive sex workers and high-end service workers….The white, male chef has more privilege than some of his diners, especially the characters of color. But the film takes a very retro view of privilege and class, aligning with the chef who longs for ye olde hardscrabble days of flipping burgers and the idealized, manic pixie dream sex worker.”
This inconsistency is what makes The Menu so frustrating because we have a deranged, bitter white man who has psychologically tormented his staff and fans his entire working career. The foodie they made fun of for not knowing how to cook willingly chose to come to the dinner, despite knowing he would be killed because he was that obsessed with Slowik. Slowik took advantage of that to validate his own pettiness. He is essentially rounding up a mob he indoctrinated to kill people (and, in some cases, just the idea of people) who have wronged him personally, and it's disturbing to watch.
That's not the logic of an MLK Jr. It's not justice, accountability, or even revolution. It's the logic of a tyrant, a cult leader, and, one could argue, a capitalist.
When we look at the inspiration for The Menu, it allegedly came from Will Tracy, going to a similar island restaurant in Norway as a patron. I cannot speak for Seth Reiss and Will Tracy's life experiences; what I can find online has been sparse. The two may have worked their way up a restaurant chain on the side as they pursued becoming famous writers. I don’t know.
However, the genesis of this film was a rich person spoofing on his own personal experiences as a guest at a fancy restaurant. That perspective, coupled with, from what I can tell, no alternative research for the backend of these restaurants beyond mere aesthetics (and certainly no attempt to center it in the narrative), led to a very stilted story about class.
This film is ultimately not angry about how our current capitalist system is exploitative or unjust (those are just the appetizers we munch on as food for thought) but about the unfulfilling nature of the modern client-service relationship. The climax of the film comes when Margot outsmarts Slowik by calling his food passionless and getting him to cook a plain ole American burger instead (note: we learn that Slowik was a burger-flipper earlier in his career). This act makes Slowik feel better about his craft, and he (again, as the tyrant) lets her leave. She made him feel again, and that rekindling is what the film suggests we need more of: the joy of our respective crafts. As Reiss remarks in that same Hollywood Reporter interview:
“There’s something to be said about how these are two service industry employees who do enjoy or have enjoyed what they do. At the end of the movie, I think Margot enjoys providing this experience for the chef and Chef enjoys providing this experience for Margot. Both of them ultimately enjoy this perfect service industry customer relationship because when done well and right, it can be quite lovely. Everyone’s respectful of one another. So there’s something I think quite nice about that final moment whether or not she’s playing a game or whether he’s aware she’s playing a game. There is something in a nanosecond very lovely happening.”
Yet, and I must stress this, there is nothing lovely about this relationship. The emotional labor she is doing at that moment is one of survival. Maybe in a post-capitalist world, such relationships could be built on more equal footing, but in the present, they are built on exploitation (yes, even your job).
The problem is that Slowik has too much power, and his demeanor and respectfulness don't change that dynamic. He gets to decide if Margot lives or dies. He abuses that power, as many do, but even if he were the best client who has ever existed, the way capitalism works is to force people into positions they don't want to be in (and no, this is not a dunk on sex work, but all jobs). This creates a dynamic that demeanor alone cannot change — and this film only seems willing to deconstruct that power in a very superficial way.
From Parasite to Glass Onion to Sorry to Bother You, there are so many films that have something substantive to say about capitalism and class. While The Menu has things to say about the ridiculousness of high-end restaurants, its class discussion is based more on aesthetics than anything meaningful about capitalism itself. This leaves the viewer with a half-baked message that lets a bad taste linger in one's mouth.
About the Creator
I write long-form pieces on timely themes inside entertainment, pop culture, video games, gender, sexuality, race and politics. My writing currently reaches a growing audience of over 10,000 people every month across various publications.
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