The trailer for Ali G Indahouse and Succession director Mark Mylod’s fourth feature effort—the latest since 2011’s iconic (joking) Chris Evans vehicle What’s Your Number?—The Menu did not inspire confidence. But I chalk it up to yet another case of a trailer doing a disservice to the finished piece (“fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, yadda yadda”). I always try to reserve judgment about these sorts of things. But I am, by nature, a judgmental, opinionated and reactive person. And the trailer’s cuts to “Well, that just happened!”-esque gags and a plot that seemed to evoke something as obvious as The Most Dangerous Game conjured in my mind another predictable “elevated” horror/thriller employing the same detached sense of post-ironic humor that has infiltrated and subsequently ruined a huge swath of modern films. I’m not pointing any fingers, but if you know, you know.
So, with slightly less-than-neutral expectations, I came out of The Menu pleasantly surprised—not just by the fact that I mostly enjoyed it, but by the tight, funny, unpredictable narrative which, in a way, was actually benefited by the red herring of a trailer. It’s true that The Menu is, as Fran Hoepfner describes it, “all empty calories.” With a plot outwardly carrying class satire and a takedown of foodie culture and elitism, written with the sharp, snappy dialogue given to the Roy family—the same sort of wealthy people who would undoubtedly visit a restaurant like Hawthorne, and that Mylod enjoys putting on blast—The Menu is sillier than it is successfully satirical. That’s not a bad thing, and it keeps the film light and airy as opposed to an overly dense mouthful. But the intertwining of commentary on the drudgery of working in customer service and the solidarity that is necessary between service workers intrigued me. As a former employee of Panera Bread, The Gap and Gap ancillaries Banana Republic and Old Navy for nearly a decade, I was an easy mark.
The Menu unfolds as such: Foodie enthusiast Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) brings his friend Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity chance to dine at Hawthorne, a highly exclusive restaurant that operates out of a private island. There, they’ll be served by Tyler’s idol, the revered Chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), along with a group of other dinner guests ranging from snobbish food critics to business playboys to old-money regulars. Over the course of the overwrought dinner (consisting of rocks, foam and “unaccompanied accompaniments”) we learn that Margot and Tyler are not really friends at all. Tyler is one of Margot’s clients, and Margot is an escort he decided to bring in place of the girlfriend who just dumped him. It’s the inclusion of Margot that knocks Slowik’s meticulous dinner plans out of orbit. Margot understands that there’s something not quite right about Hawthorne, and Slowik calculates that there’s something not quite right about Margot. He confronts Margot, urging her that she shouldn’t be here. The menu was not meant for her.
Eventually, we get what Slowik meant by this: He has astutely clocked that Margot is not one of the customers, but one of the staff. He sees through her thin façade: She is not of the upper crust, but a servant of them just like he is. Still, her inclusion in the evening cannot free her of her impending fate, which is the death of all diners, all cooks and Slowik himself. It’s part of Slowik’s ambitious new menu, a means of transcending the confines of mere culinary artistry (“Everybody dying is part of the menu!”). It’s a cheeky way to make fun of the culture of high-class cuisine; of beautifully composed dishes that aren’t actually for eating, and the people who eagerly pay for them. It’s then revealed that Tyler happily knew about everyone dying before coming to Hawthorne, and that he swapped his girlfriend out not because she dumped him, but because he didn’t want her to die. Instead, he brought a sex worker.
On the one hand, this decision—of the food service staff to kill themselves in tandem with their guests, instead of only killing their guests out of revenge—could be construed as confused or even derogatory in its stance towards the working class. But seeking only vengeance on the elite customer would be too easy of a thesis; obviously, most people who have worked in customer service want to kill their customers. There’s nothing novel in that idea. There is something to be said, however, for the concept of service workers killing themselves needlessly for their customers—metaphorically speaking.
It’s an idea made more meaningful in The Menu’s execution, balancing just enough ironic gravitas and evocative commentary. Self-awareness is what separates The Menu from your standard self-serious horror fare, but it also manages to never be overly detached or winking at the audience to distance itself from the absurdity of its own content. There is an embrace of The Menu’s inherent inanity apparent in the humor (possibly Ralph Fiennes’ funniest performance, matched only by his turn in The Grand Budapest Hotel) and the way it reflects the real-life silliness and grimness of overly committed customer service workers.
Watching The Menu, I was reminded of my time working at Banana Republic for a little less than a year. There was a culture of snobbery among the staff, of pathetic fealty towards the patrons at the expense of employees’ well-being and, above all, of fashioning oneself into a sacrificial lamb. That we were doing something more important, something meaningful that took precedence over all else, including ourselves. One co-worker in particular would habitually do work for the store while she was off the clock at home, and used it to uphold a similar expectation for all of us. She kept track of how long other employees took to use the bathroom to make sure we weren’t engaging in “time theft.” On two separate occasions, I was confronted by my boss on behalf of anonymous co-workers who had complained to her that I “didn’t look like I wanted to be at work enough.” I put in my resignation shortly after the second confrontation.
So, Slowik understands that he and Margot are the same, but it’s to the point where she too should be willing to give up her life in service of her work. So, Margot must choose: Will she die alongside the bourgeoisie she is beneath, or will she die alongside the servants she belongs with? Of course, Margot’s goal is to not die at all, a goal that quickly becomes feasible after she discovers Slowik’s past by happenstance—his beginnings as a humble burger-flipper long before advancing into his status as celebrity chef. Margot takes advantage of this knowledge, gaining an upper hand when, after angering Slowik all night by refusing his pithy food, she demands he make her a cheeseburger and fries. Margot is then allowed to leave the island while everyone else perishes behind her.
The Menu isn’t quite as intelligent as other social satires. But I enjoyed its dead-on depiction of the absurd, sacrificial attitude people in customer service often have towards the same patrons that they hate and the brand that doesn’t care about them. In Hawthorne, I saw my co-workers who were eager to work themselves to death so that an upper-middle-class housewife could pat them on the head and soon after forget that they exist. In Julian Slowik, I saw the same readiness to drag everyone down out of allegiance to the brand and to the consumers, even if they hated that very consumer. And in Margot, I saw myself, biding my time and leveling with expectations in order to eventually get myself the hell out of there. Slowik purports revenge towards these customers, those who contributed to him losing his love of cooking and those who aided in the downfall of craftsmen like him. But even this revenge is in service of customer experience. The customer cannot have the privilege of dying without the staff. Their deaths are part of the menu, after all.
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared at Gawker, The Playlist, Polygon, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more. You can follow her on Twitter.