If your taste in films is akin to having comfort food night after night, you can skip The Menu, and you can skip the appetizer I’m about to serve up.
No, not a review of plot or cinematography or acting–except to say that Ralph Fiennes is mesmerizing as Big Brother and Anya Taylor-Joy makes for an irresistible Winston Smith. Instead, I’ll recommend it with comparisons. Think of them as substitutions even if “Chef” is at his loudest when he insists “there are no substitutions!”
If you ever read Orwell’s 1984, you know I’ve already made the first–though Fiennes’ character is always addressed as “Chef,” and Taylor-Joy is either Margot from Grand Island, Nebraska, or Erin from Brockton, Mass., depending on which piece of the map you want to put in the puzzle.
“And what map would that be?” asks Chef with a tired smile.
Far from an update of any classic book, The Menu is a suggestion of a genre–the totalitarian genre from Brave New World to The Handmaid’s Tale, and from Melville’s fictional Ahab to the all-too-real Donald Trump. Set in a restaurant on a small island named “Hawthorne,” Menu recalls the darkest Twice Told Tales that delve into witchcraft and deals with the devil–recast with wit more laugh-out-loud than dry.
Comparisons to films? First that occurred to me was Robert Altman’s 1994 spoof of the fashion industry, Ready to Wear. From nude runway models to empty plates, its satire is as naked as its wrath.
More immediately it plays in the same tragi-comic key as Don’t Look Up. If you laughed and marveled at how Meryl Streep so effortlessly channeled Republican politicians while playing a US President drunk in denial, you’ll appreciate the provocative twist of an Asian woman attacking a white woman with a knife while yelling, “You will not replace me!”
Another topical echo is Chef’s private screed to Margot, or Erin, or is she Alice in Wonderland? Or Dorothy in Oz?
Chef: Who are you?
Margot: I. Am. Margot. Why do you care?
Chef: Because. I need to know if you’re with us or with them.
He gives her the choice to be among “the givers or the takers,” a dichotomy that right-wing politicians have harped on since Mitt Romney let it out of the bag in 2012.
It would be easy to simply cubbyhole Menu as a take on the cult of personality. Think Jim Jones in 1978 with dinner guests in Jonestown, Guyana, or Heaven’s Gate in 1997 as a swank restaurant rather than a home in California. But we’ve seen that cult of personality is no longer so easily cubbyholed–or confined to the places where they implode.
In more ways than one, Menu explodes. If I was writing a review, I’d call it dystopian, but who has any taste for that? For the sake of this appetizer, I’ll call The Menu a horror film–in the same sense that films such as Soylent Green and The Hunger Games horrify us.
Still, the film is sauteed and served in laughs that hook the audience as completely as the gourmet servings that keep Chef’s diners savoring every mouthwatering bite no matter how gruesome or real the “theatricality” between courses. Not to mention a sommelier who chirps of “cherry and tobacco notes” as he glides from table to table. Seriously, if you can’t laugh at Chef’s description of S’mores, you need to consult a neurologist. I’m just a projectionist.
For all she endures, even Margot–or Erin, or Dorothy, or Alice when she’s ten feet tall–relishes the cheeseburger Chef made just for her.