The smug half-satire of uberrich foodie culture ‘The Menu’ wastes a handful of promising ideas on a flat, visually ugly execution.

The Menu is a horror-comedy now streaming on HBO Max that takes ostensible aim at foodie culture. (Searchlight Pictures)

When Jean Renoir was conceiving his legendary 1939 tragicomedy The Rules of the Game, he stuck to one guiding principle: it would have no heroes or villains. The film, which went on to inspire everything from Robert Altman’s Gosford Park to Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, treats each of its hedonistic bourgeois characters and toiling workers with gentle compassion even as it sounds the alarm on Europe’s imminent slide into fascism. It’s a social satire couched in a farce, and it works: the farce is funny, the satire sharp, and the target true—rather than invent ghouls just to call them ghoulish, Renoir slyly considers how a culture of violent individualism might deliver all of its participants to ruin.

Last year’s preponderance of alleged cinematic class critiques could stand to take a page from his book. Late-fall favorites like Glass Onion and Triangle of Sadness harnessed the undeniable thrill of watching the elite make fools of themselves but in the end amounted to little more than soft-target fluff that allowed everyone in the audience to pat themselves on the back for snickering at the bad guys. The vibe was cynical and obvious rather than sharp and illuminating, and no film dared consider what in the culture beyond the personal flaws of its affluent court jesters might be worth condemning.

The biggest hit of the bunch was The Menu, a horror-comedy now streaming on HBO Max that takes ostensible aim at foodie culture. It centres on Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), who’s brought along as a trophy date by a culinary obsessive (Nicholas Hoult) to dine at Hawthorn, an exclusive $1,250-per-head ‘tasting menu experience’ on a desert island. Once the pair arrives, flanked by cultural heavyweights from movie stars (John Leguizamo) to food critics (Janet McTeer), they come face-to-face with the hallowed executive chef: Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), whose menu—surprise!— is slated to draw more than the anticipated amount of blood.

The Menu is a bad movie, but it houses more than zero pleasures. A few jokes land, there’s some effectively gnarly bloodshed, and Taylor-Joy, as ever, exudes an effortless magnetism. As a thriller, though, it’s stunningly obvious from its opening moments, forcing an audience to think, ‘Surely that can’t be all’ and then confirming that no, yep, that’s all. As a satire, it’s even worse, and I found myself growing angrier at the slop I’d just been fed with each passing hour after the credits rolled.

The idea is this: Slowik used to cook for the love of the game. He loved the service aspect of his position (he even calls himself a ‘service-industry worker’ at one point, in one of the screenplay’s thousand tin-eared buzzword grabs). But slowly, he allowed that pleasure to bleed out of his work as he gathered more and more acclaim, eventually rising to a price point that could only cater to thoughtless nobles and white-collar criminals. So, he’s invited the people who most symbolise the slaughter of his profession to Hawthorn for one final service, which will end in the violent deaths of himself, his staff, and the diners.

Unfortunately, none of the rich baddies whose downfalls we’re supposed to relish have even a whisper of dimension, and Slowik’s methodology could blow over in the wind. He’s killing the investors who helped sour the soul of his craft, sure, but also an actor who starred in a bad movie he saw once. Hoult’s foodie is being punished for ‘removing the mystery from Slowik’s art’ with his obsessive study of it, and also . . . because he’s a pervert who knew everyone would die but brought a date with him anyway since he’s so obsessed with mignonette? (That’s not a type of guy!) When Taylor-Joy’s Margot is revealed to be a sex worker, Slowik seems to extend her an olive branch of solidarity—which is, of course, handled as clumsily as possible—and then yanks it back as soon as she flexes the very freedom he appears to enjoy in her.

Muddy politics could be forgiven if the movie leaned into its flashes of horror and went full-tilt mad-chef B-movie, but it’s too self-satisfied for that. In the dizzyingly stupid home stretch, we watch the unpretentious Margot win her freedom by ordering a cheeseburger from Slowik—a gesture whose simplicity proves to the chef that she deserves to live—and then she watches the island go up in flames as she bites into it with a smirk. The smirk is hers, and it’s also the movie’s, smug for deigning a sex worker its sole survivor (never mind that she’s afforded zero inner life) and for asserting the supremacy of good fast food over fussy fine dining. It attempts to come off like a pro-prole coup but is poisoned by the shallow, insolent attitude of crypto-worshipping ‘disruptors’.

And not for nothing, for a film that cries out about a lack of respect for craft, The Menu has very little. Its main setting—a glass-and-gray dining room so sexless it makes a Crate & Barrel catalogue look like a Tom of Finland calendar—could not be more cramped or less interesting to look at, with every over-the-shoulder frame cluttered by an unholy mass of bodies elbowing for dominance. To make matters worse, Mylod bathes nearly every moment in the icy-harsh light of a Netflix original, and a handful of foreboding sweeps across the island’s shoreline (promptly abandoned after act one) land like cheap shortcuts to the eerie atmosphere Mike White achieved on both seasons of The White Lotus.

In the film’s final moments, which might be enjoyably absurd if there had ever once been doubt that it would end any other way, Slowik dresses up his victims as s’mores, which he calls ‘the most offensive assault on the human palette ever contrived’, mere ‘gelatinous sugar water imprisoned in industrial-grade graham cracker’, and sets them on fire. You wish, at last, that you could do the same to the industrial-grade sugar cinema you’ve just been force-fed; a product that Slowik, at least, for all of his flaws, would never have let out of the kitchen.

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