The Menu, Capitalism, and the Creative Process

By Calum Cooper

*Warning: This feature contains spoilers for The Menu*

There’s been a real spike in movies that criticise obscene wealth and capitalism in recent years, including last year’s Palme d’Or winning “Triangle of Sadness” (2022), the immensely fun “Ready or Not” (2019), Boots Reilly’s ingenious satire “Sorry to Bother You” (2018), and the Oscar winning “Parasite” (2019). Even Rian Johnson’s Benoit Blanc franchise seems to be as connected by a scathing view of wealth as it is by the murder mystery genre. Yet, last year’s “The Menu” (2022) tackles the problems of capitalism in a very unique way – specifically its effects on creatives and those who service the affluent class.

“The Menu” primarily tackles its themes through the motives and interactions of its characters. Anya Taylor-Joy plays an escort named Margot – real name Erin – who is accompanying Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) to the island restaurant Hawthorne, owned by the illustrious Chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). Hawthorne and Slowik have garnered such a prestigious reputation that only the wealthiest of the wealthiest can book seats there. But Slowik has an underlying vendetta against all of his patrons tonight, and has prepared a menu of strange metaphorical foods with an extra serving of imminent death for them.

Plain and simple, Slowik is a great villain. Not only is Fiennes’ performance delightfully playful, and even hammy in some ways, but his character has an intriguing motivation. Rather than Slowik using the night as a means to show off his twisted “artistry,” his menu embodies the death of his service, something that was brought about and accelerated by the gears of capitalism. Slowik sees the creation and presentation of his meals as an artform; a way of enhancing the experience of fine dining for the benefit of those who seek his services as a chef.

Yet, this was the Slowik before “The Menu”. By the time Margot and the rest of the guests arrive at Hawthorne, Slowik has long since lost his passion for the culinary industry. In a monologue, he reveals that as he found more success his food became less accessible, until those who hired him made sure his food could only be eaten by the 1% of the bourgeoisie. His food is strange, even self-aggrandising, but he was at least able to take comfort in knowing that he was offering a service to all. Now that capitalism, and the demands of the consumer, have hijacked his creative process, only the highest of elitist snobs can experience his creations. Now, the powers that guide Slowik see his food as a means to satisfy their specific needs and whims, rather than a service of which can serve the many.

“The Menu” is effectively Slowik’s concoction of seeking revenge on these elite consumers – the ones who he says are why the mystery has been drained from his art. Many of his guests reflect the worst of capitalist consumers. Richard (Reed Birney) and his wife Anne (Judith Light) are regulars at Hawthorne, but they go because they can, not because they love Slowik’s food. When asked to name a dish they have eaten at his restaurant, they cannot name a single one. They consume for the sake of consuming. The trio of Bryce, Soren and Dave (Rob Yang, Arturo Castro and Mark St. Cyr) are embezzling crooks who make their money by exploiting the creative talents of people like Slowik. Lillian Bloom (Janet McTeer) is a food critic whose words can make or break a chef’s career. Slowik has watched as her words have destroyed the livelihoods of service providers, all while she smugly risks nothing and enjoys the privilege of fine dining, behaviour that her editor (Paul Adelstein) actively enables.

Even Margot’s date Tyler represents fan culture, another, more modern form of consumerism, at its worst. People like Tyler obsess over the artist’s work as if they are entitled to it, to the point where they believe themselves a gatekeeper to an artform that they have never once offered anything of their own talents to, likely due to a lack of them. Slowik makes this clear in a savage humiliation of Tyler; forcing him to cook an ultimately disgusting dish. There is also a grim pettiness to Slowik and his actions – as seen by his inviting of John Leguizamo’s character purely because he starred in a movie that he didn’t like. But there’s no denying that there is method to his madness. It is understandable, even relatable, to those who have contributed to the creative or service industries.

“The Menu” demonstrates how capitalism and its relationship to consumerism can actively suck the joy from creatives, particularly as they attempt to fulfil the needs of the most affluent and entitled consumers, who are more often than not one in the same.”

This is where Margot differs from the rest. She is heavily implied to be working class in contrast to the severe affluence of everyone around her. But, as an escort, she is also a service provider, just like Slowik. The only reason she is there is because Tyler paid for her services. Margot and Slowik, despite being protagonist and antagonist respectively, even form a morbid sense of kindredship because of their shared experiences with the service industry, especially with awful customers. We can all agree that whoever came up with the phrase “the customer is always right” is the bane of the creative culinary community.

What separates Margot from Slowik however is her lack of ego. She provides her services so she can live a comfortable life. He provides his services so he can be revered by the consumer as a creative deity. When confronting him with this truth, she rightfully tells him “you cook with obsession, not with love”. In his attempts to be revered, he gave in to the demands of the consumer, while Margot, as she recalls in her experiences with both Tyler and Richard in a past encounter, sets clear boundaries for herself. As such, Slowik’s attempts to please the capitalists and affluent class has arguably made him the architect of his own unhappiness. There is no ethical consumption under capitalism, but there is debatably no ethical creation either under the same banner. For Slowik, he has had to trade in what makes him happy for what sells, especially as his customers made his food more and more exclusive.

Margot realises this when she searches Slowik’s home and discovers a picture of him at his happiest – when he was flipping burgers at a fast food restaurant in his first culinary job. She weaponises this in order to escape Hawthorne, by filing a complaint and then asking for a cheeseburger – a symbolic food to the takeaway and fast food industries, which are far more commonly consumed by the working class. Slowik reluctantly obliges, but it is apparent to see through Fiennes’ performance how fulfilling this is. Providing his customer with a simple cheeseburger makes him so much happier than any of the elaborate affluence that is demanded of him by capitalism. Perhaps this is what convinces him to let Margot go in the end?

“The Menu” demonstrates how capitalism and its relationship to consumerism can actively suck the joy from creatives, particularly as they attempt to fulfil the needs of the most affluent and entitled consumers, who are more often than not one in the same. Those who set healthy boundaries and are in tune with their services, such as Margot, are able to navigate the give or take disciplines of capitalism much better than people like Slowik, whose desire to be recognised causes him to forget why he fell in love with creativity in the first place. The same way that movies like “Parasite” recognise how capitalism chews up and spits out those who desire affluence, “The Menu” showcases how the same is true of creatives and those who provide for the consumer.

However, it also shows that those who take charge of their service providing skills, in spite of capitalism, will find themselves more fulfilled and more able to stand up to the inequality of entitled affluence. This is ultimately what makes Margot the sole survivor, while everyone else is swallowed up in a cartoonish blaze of chocolate and marshmallows. Her defiance of the capitalist system is what allows her to survive against everyone else’s exploitation of it. That the film’s final image is Margot eating a cheeseburger and wiping her mouth with a copy of Slowik’s menu is a hilariously direct showcasing of this.

“The Menu” is one of 2022’s most fun and inventive films. A riotous social satire that is equal parts scary and funny, it’s a film that I regret not including in my honourable mentions of 2022. Its commentary on capitalism and how it affects the creative service industries is executed wonderfully through sharp writing. Plus, its eerie atmosphere and great performances, especially from Ralph Fiennes and the always impressive Anya Taylor-Joy, elevate it to a higher experience. In an age where we are thankfully seeing capitalism challenged more and more, here’s hoping “The Menu”, in all its carnage and craziness, will inspire even more films that are cut from the same loin of meat.

“The Menu” is now streaming on Disney+


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