A few weeks ago, YouTube recommended a recent video essay for me entitled “rage & revenge: the birth of a new genre” [capitalization sic], created by Rowan Ellis. Apparently, it’s now a major part of The Discourse to consider recent films about women taking revenge as a genre unto itself, using the famous “good for her” quote from Lucille Bluth as its title. I’m not sure about the need for this specific taxonomic declension, but I can also tell you right now that most of the films that fall into that basket are ones that I already love, and the overlap in the Venn diagram between the films which are commonly identified using this term and my oft-cited love for “women on the verge” pictures is the shape of the moon a couple of days prior to being full. I’d even say that many of them overlap between the two subgenres, notably mother!, Midsommar, Promising Young Woman, and even Knives Out! and Ready or Not. It was the last two of these that was at the forefront of my mind every time I saw the trailer for The Menu, as the advertisement included certain specific details that were very similar: the woman out of place among the narcissistic rich elites who finds their decadence alienating, and that her specific presence as a member of a class that was unlike theirs would be the key to her success. The movie is … not quite that, but it still qualifies.
Hawthorne is an exclusive offshore restaurant situated on a private island and operated by celebrity chef Julian Slowick (Ralph Fiennes). Each evening, a cohort of twelve wealthy diners is shuttled to the island for a multi-course dinner, nearly all courses of which are informed by every little pretension of molecular gastronomy you’ve seen hyped and mocked on the internet and in sitcoms since the 1990s. One attendee, a food critic, is even said to have been the person who “basically discovered” slow eggs, which automatically made me flashback to a nearly five-year-old NYT piece about chef Alice Waters and her practice of cooking a single egg over a fire in a long cast iron spoon, the memory of which comes to mind unbidden about once a month, although rarely through so direct an association. Our viewpoint character on all of this is Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), who is accompanying snobby foodie Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) to the restaurant on his dime; we’re immediately introduced to his fanboy idolization of Slowick in his first few moments, and his endless stream of prattle about gourmand nonsense and food science is breathless not because of his awe or wonder but because of its businesslike efficiency. He seems like exactly the kind of man who peacocks by taking a woman to a ludicrously expensive restaurant and explaining every little detail in a rehearsed speech as part of a mating ritual, not for any real love of foodcraft.
Rounding out the night’s guests are: a wealthy couple, Richard (Reed Birney) and Anne (Judith Light, who I was delighted to see), who have eaten at Hawthorne over a dozen times; Lillian (Janet McTeer), a well-acted caricature of every food critic character you’ve ever seen on screen, and her editor Ted (Paul Adelstein); fading star George Diaz (John Leguizamo) and his girlfriend/assistant Felicity (Aimee Carrero); and a trio of tech bro worms (Arturo Castro, Rob Yang, and Mark St. Cyr) who boast to one another about their infidelities, off shore accounts, and general shittiness. Upon arrival, there is a heated discussion between Tyler and the maitre d’ Elsa (Hong Chau, who steals every scene that she’s in) regarding the fact that Margot is not his guest of record, but she is allowed to stay, despite her apathy about the situation. Elsa gives the diners a tour, which includes their poultry coops, meat smokehouse, and even the dorms in which the staff who work under Slowick reside, which looks more like a prison than anything else, down to an exposed toilet and shower in the same large room in which they all sleep in barracks. At the restaurant proper, dinner commences and Slowick introduces each course by clapping his hands loudly, which results in his staff dropping what they are doing and coming to military attention like the most well-behaved cooking reality show contestants on earth, at which point he gives a speech about the materiel being presented and its connection to some part of his past (and later, the pasts of some of his other high-ranking chefs). This starts out innocently enough with a sort of microcosm of an ocean ecosystem on a plate, then gets more provocative with a “lack of bread” course that includes several sauces for dipping but no actual bread, and then only becomes more dangerous from there.
The touch of the darkly comic fluctuates in its efficacy here. There are many lines that are laugh-out-loud funny, and others that are witty little observations about how people who all think that they’re the main character simply because of their wealth or power must prop themselves up by being the most annoying person in the room. Diaz attempts to ingratiate himself with the tech boys because he wants to convince himself that he’s still cool; Lillian’s running commentary on the food isn’t just for the benefit of herself and her editor but is also clearly projected so that even amongst the hubbub of the evening her comments on the broken emulsion of a particular sauce is still heard by the staff, who present her with a full bowl of the broken sauce. Tyler takes pictures of his food despite that being explicitly forbidden at the start of the evening, and Ted simply plays sycophant to whatever Lillian says, often completely reversing course on a statement in the middle when Lillian objects with an opposing opinion. It elucidates each diner in a way that’s efficient without feeling utilitarian while also planting little character morsels for you to recall and smile—although presumably not laugh—when they cross your mind. Margot’s cunning bon mots are fun, but they don’t stick to your ribs in quite the way that they ought. Of course, sitting in a cinema where the jokes aren’t landing with other people can also artifically dampen that feeling, as there are certain things that made me chuckle audibly but to which no one else reacted, so that could be while I’m feeling less than satiated by this particular meal. It’s not bad, I’m just still hungry (ok, I’ll stop). I’m just hesitant to say more because I wouldn’t want to spoil you, or your appetite (ok, that was the last one, I promise).
I don’t think that this would actually fall into the Good For Her genre. The ending is fun and functional, and although I would go so far as to say it borders on exhilarating, I wouldn’t call it cathartic. It’s not merely enough that assholes get their comeuppance for the film to qualify (if it did, this would make the cut), it’s that our Final Girl has to have actually performed some kind of rampage, and that just doesn’t happen here. It’s more a cold and calculated game of riddles between the staff and the diners with Margot falling somewhere in the middle, having to find the line between the ones who take and the ones who give and straddle it in order to survive. I’ll leave it at that, but if you’re a knowledge sponge with a functionally adult attention span like I am, then I’d recommend checking out Tara Heimberger’s thesis on the subject, “Female Rage, Revenge, and Catharsis,” here. This was a movie that will play as well for you as a rental once it’s available on demand as it does on the big screen, gorgeous island vistas aside, so I recommend it, maybe paired with a five-course dinner.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond