You will get less than you desire and more than you deserve

You will get less than you desire and more than you deserve

Whenever I finish a film or TV series I immediately want to read as much about it as possible. That's true whether or not I loved it or I thought it fucking sucked. Sometimes trying to answer the question wait why did this fucking suck? is crucial. There are some films however where I go above and beyond and gorge myself on reviews and commentary. The Menu was one of those. The type of film that worms itself inside of me and I can't let go of it.

So after I was finished reading I wanted to talk about it some more. I called up Vince Mancini, the film and culture writer at Uproxx, who like me, also had The Menu on his best of the year list.

(Do not read this piece if you haven't seen the film yet. In fact I'd recommend watching it without knowing anything at all if you can.)

We talked, among other things, about how The Menu has, incorrectly in our estimation, been lumped in with an ostensible trend in facile Rich People Bad films and series, and how it does so much more than that. As he wrote in his review:

The Menu explores the limitations of for-profit art, which is neither a simplistic take nor a pandering one. It describes a dilemma artists have faced since at least the Renaissance, and the fact that it’s possible to enjoy The Menu for the razor-sharp joke writing and knockout performances (Hong Chau in particular), without “getting” it is a testament to its quality.
The Menu is not about “dunking on the rich.” That just happens to be one of the many things this great movie does well.

Find more from Vince, including his podcasts The Frotcast (which I appeared on a few years back), and Pod Yourself a Gun here.

Real quick before we get to The Menu, look at this fucking shocker.

“Maybe we cried too much last year,” Walgreen CFO James Kehoe said. “We’re stabilized,” he added, saying the company is “quite happy with where we are.”

Do you mean to tell me all of those hundreds of articles and TV news segments about organized crime and shoplifting on the rise were actually reactionary bullshit meant to stifle any progress made by protestors of unchecked police spending and hamstring reformist DAs?

Here's another lie.

That's not how it works.

People cross for myriad reasons, some for “opportunity,” some literally fleeing death or poverty, but how do we convince people of the most obvious thing in the world, which is that no one uproots their entire life to walk and walk and walk and maybe die to come here for this and giggles or to be a “lazy” “parasite”?

Would you do that?

Some further reading from previous Hell Worlds on the matter of crossing the border.

Give us the money or we’ll kill your son
Making the arduous journey from El Salvador to the U.S.

"I didn’t want to come over here. To go to another country. You know, you have to walk, cross the river, sleep over in the woods in the night...But you got two choices, go over there, or stay here and let’s see what happens to you. You die."

I thought no one is going to believe me I have to somehow document this
I want you to know that I have loved you since the moment I met you

“We were drinking cologne by the second day in the desert,” Dora says. “That saved our life too, that spiced cologne.”

I've been seeing a lot of this take lately where people are conflating Succession and White Lotus and Glass Onion and The Menu and so on and just sort of reducing them to the theme of Rich People Bad. And then criticizing them, individually or as a grouping, as empty gestures under those terms. I liked most of those others more or less, but in no way is The Menu saying Rich People Bad. That’s maybe a small piece of what this movie is saying.

I would agree with that. I mean, it definitely points out that rich people tend to be assholes. And gives us a lot of different flavors of rich asshole. But it's clearly exploring a lot more. It's not just saying Rich People Bad. I feel like people keep reducing it to that, or wanting these things to be that, which is weird.

There's also this idea that they aren't, what, sufficiently revolutionary? Who was expecting these big Hollywood productions to be actually subversive and dangerous, right?

Yeah. We've been doing this for a while now, where there's this weird expectation for art to moralize, or to be didactic in that way. I kind of think that part of it is they need more examples for a trend piece, because I think there are things that Glass Onion does that are annoying. Like the climax when Benoit Blanc is explaining the plot – which is the trope of all these mysteries, where the inspector fucking lays out the plot towards the end –  he does go overboard and beyond to point out that the main Elon Musk guy is stupid. He just keeps saying it over and over, making a joke out of it. And it's kind of like, did we need that? That was all sort of in there. He’s trying to hit you over the head with it. I wonder if part of all this is that people are annoyed by that type of thing, and they're trying to unfairly lump The Menu in with that to make, you know, like a three movie trend piece or whatever.

Right. I thought Glass Onion was fun. I didn't think it was really trying to say too much. The other pieces we’re talking about here, to different extents, are actually saying things. I think. I like the fact that Succession and White Lotus both play with the idea that money doesn't buy you happiness. It's an obvious point, but I think that that's still a very rich vein to be explored in numerous different ways.

With Succession in particular, the reason that these people are so watchable and compelling is that their problems are actually very human problems that are not made better, and are in fact in many ways made worse, by their wealth.

Succession is great because it's very much about the nepotism problem. Like when the first generation gets rich because they're hungry and striving, and then they have kids that are comfortable. And then the comfortable kids are expected to run the thing the same way that their striving parents did, which is interesting. It's like a super old idea going back to like, the fucking Mongols or whatever.

Again, the idea is not like, oh, this is about rich people being bad. It’s exploring the mechanics of how that happens.

As much as I'm going to talk about how much I liked The Menu, there is of course definitely space for more subtle explorations of this tension between server and servants, figurative and literal. Plenty of films have done that very well or even much better. But with this movie… This is pretty rare for me to do like a single movie-focused Hell World. I’ve been thinking about this one for a few days in the same way I think about some of the movies that really get inside of me.

Where do you think Parasite sits atop of all of this? Was that the movie to reignite the idea of focusing on class conflict in this current iteration we’re seeing now?

That's definitely a big one. That's like the bar that you compare a lot of these class-based sort of satires to I think.

I think Parasite was great because it was this class-based, part allegory thing. But I think, for me, the thing that makes that movie great is that at some point it goes off the rails. It's not a perfect allegory, or like a perfect, didactic story, it's weird. I think that's what makes the movie great, is that they get weird. This guy lives in the fucking walls, right? It's just great. You remember stuff like that. With The Menu the people keep wanting to reduce it to a satire of class or of wealth. But to me I feel like it's much more specific to art. With Ralph Fiennes’ character, he's gotten to this place where he's the foremost artist in his field, but then that sort of restricts his clientele to only the wealthiest people. So then he ends up essentially working for the top whatever percent, and he's frustrated with that, which I think is an interesting and slightly more nuanced take than just the normal class tale.

Yeah, and besides, while there is that rich and poor element here, there's also the server/servant tension, the art/commerce tension, and artist/critic tension. The latter part could be a chef or a filmmaker or whatever. There's probably a lot of winking filmmaker frustration stuff in there as well. What it's like to deal with film critics.

And on top of that –  I worked in the restaurant and bar world for about twenty years, nothing anywhere near that level of restaurant – but all the over the top antagonism toward the guests is well felt. All the service industry people I've talked to or seen talking about The Menu, they all sort of love the specificity with which it explores those things within the realm of dining and service.

Have you ever worked in restaurants?

Oh yeah. I'm a big food guy. I write about food almost as much as I do about movies and I've worked in kitchens and been a server. If you know the food industry and you have been in the service industry you can kind of tell that all the references are pretty spot on in a way that like…  The Bear was the big show of this past year or whatever. And that's a great show, and the acting is great, and it moves and keeps me awake in a way that most TV doesn't nowadays. But the food stuff is kind of off on that one. Most people that either know Chicago or know restaurants, there's a lot of stuff in that show that kind of doesn't fit and doesn't make a ton of sense.

I never understood why they would be doing that French brigade style kitchen when they're just making Italian beefs? I guess that's part of the conflict or the main conflict of what he's trying to do, but still. It’s really not what those kinds of kitchens are even remotely like.

He's trying to do risotto in a fucking Italian beef place?

Back to The Menu. Let me ask you this: Are the events depicted supposed to be literally happening in the world of the film? A world similar to our own? Does that make sense?

Yeah, that makes sense. But it's one of those questions where I don't know that there's a satisfying answer to that. To me it doesn't necessarily matter. I think it works either way. It's sort of a thing where, ok, maybe that could happen. Or maybe it's a fantasy.

For a while when I was watching it I was being a little stubborn. I thought, ok, maybe you could get like a few true believers to get on board with the scheme, but there are like forty twenty something people here ready to commit a mass murder suicide for this chef. That didn’t seem earned. I don't think that would really happen!

I agree with that. That's true. But then it's movie magic, I guess.

Right. But then, once you start thinking of it like… And this is where I go, I don't know, is this dumb or not? Does this make the movie dumb? It’s that if you’re going to work in the restaurant industry like that, what do people always say? They go “I gave up my life for this job,” “I sacrificed everything,” “I killed myself at work.” Are they just dialing up the extent of the metaphor? To work for a chef like that you do have to give him your life, you know, you do have to give up everything.

So is that smart? Or is that dumb?

I think it's smart. You know, the tech industry always gets called culty. And it is very much like that, where you have some founder, and he has this grand vision, and he gets a high level of buy-in from the employees. It's not even necessarily like a monetary compensation kind of thing. I think a lot of workplaces tend towards culty. They're kind of playing with that idea. That these people wanted to work for this highly acclaimed founder kind of guy with the mystique about him. It’s heightened reality, but like the idea that it would become like a cultish thing, and cults always seem to end up with people doing crazy things like mass suicide, it wasn't so far out of the realm of possibility that I think it’s dumb or… It seemed like a fair amount of heightened reality.

And then there were other exaggerated metaphors like that. When she goes into his house and it's the exact replica of his kitchen, it’s like, oh, the chef lives at work! Then the foodie, he represents any kind of obsessive fan. A guy who goes "I would die to try that dish or see that band" or whatever.

I can see looking at all of these sort of on the nose metaphors and thinking this is all a bit much, but there's something that the film does that I think makes it so much more interesting. I asked if this is like a real world type of analogy, would any of this stuff happen, but I think what it kind of does is straddles the veil of two worlds, so to speak. So we're watching real human beings living normally within the context of the film's world, but it also kind of like side steps here and again into this more metaphorical, infernal, almost hell type of realm. Is that something that occurred to you?

That's not necessarily the way I thought about it, but I don’t hear that and go that's wrong, or, oh, that wasn't my take.

There are little things, like, remember when the sous chef did the thing where she stabbed the chef in the leg with the scissors and said he had been sexually harassing her this entire time? When she sits down when it's just the women alone she starts to weep. It occurred to me that that was one of the moments of in-world reality, like breaking through the bracketing metaphor. The facade of the surrealism humming and intercutting through everything had been punctured, briefly. She wasn't just a mindless, brainwashed cult member, she was a human being in that moment.

That makes sense. To me, it was all pushing reality right up until that breaking point. It's pushing the bounds of what I would think of as normal reality right up to the point where it becomes just believable enough where you can read it as literal or not.

It kind of reminded me a bit of Resurrection with Rebecca Hall. I thought, wait a minute, are we supposed to believe this is the normal world in the film and these things are actually happening literally? It's got this really big dangling meatball of a metaphor for abuse and pregnancy and all this stuff.

Anyway, I kept thinking of the restaurant as this sort of hellish type of place of judgment. Did you? I found a lot of people in the comments and reviews that I've read are sort of hung up on whether or not each of the guests deserved what was happening to them. Did you think about that at all?

Not really, because that sort of assumes that we take the chef’s perspective as the moral center of the movie, which I don't think that we're supposed to. It's more about whether he thinks they deserve it than whether we think they deserve it, right? We can understand his motives, but he is still a crazy cult leader in this, and we're not supposed to necessarily be like, oh, it's bad if that girl doesn't deserve it because she went to Brown without student loans. That’s just a funny line. I don't think we're supposed to care whether… I didn't care whether they deserved it.

Maybe that's some of the problem leading people to reduce it to the rich and poor thing. I saw lots of people going like, well, you know, just because you went to school without student loans doesn't make you evil and this and that. Either way that was one of the funnier lines in the movie. Another was the reason the chef wanted to kill John Leguizamo’s character. That he half-assed it in a film one time.

He’s being petty. That's what's funny about it. I feel like whenever a character is too articulate in a work of fiction, people often confuse that for being like the voice of God in the story. It's kind of like True Detective, when people thought we're supposed to think Matthew McConaughey’s character was profound. I was like, no, that's just part of his character. We're supposed to laugh at that guy as much as we laugh at Woody Harrelson.

Right, right. But I guess the Devil, the stereotypical Devil character, is sort of petty and shitty like that too. Maybe that's playing into why I saw the chef as an angel of judgment type of character.

Yeah. Oh, for sure. I mean, he is that, I would agree with that.

And some of them did certainly deserve it. A lot of character detail was just said in passing. Like the the old rich guy who got his finger cut off, it was implied that he had molested his daughter who it turns out Anna Joy Taylor is supposed to look like. And the foodie character literally sentences her to death. Alright, those two guys deserve it. You know?

There’s ample material there for you to say, well, alright, he at least had a point there.

Finance bros who are stealing people's money. I don't think anyone's losing sleep over them.

No. I'm curious. John Leguizamo. Who was the first celebrity that you thought of that he was supposed to be basically?

I think he's supposed to be like an action star. So maybe it was like a Sylvester Stallone type of guy. Something like that, where he had a real period of dogshit movies come out after his success.  Didn't somebody say that it was based on Steven Seagal?

Oh! I didn't hear that. He's not nearly weird enough to be Seagal.

What did you think?

My first thought was Johnny Depp, mostly based on styling I guess. Then something about the movies they were describing made me think he’s Jack Black.

Oh yeah. I liked his characterization a lot. Because the same thing happens to actors that the chef is going through. You get to a point where you just lose any sense of purpose that you started out with. You just end up just going through the motions.

Even on a much smaller level with what we do, I'm sure that every now and again you put out a piece that’s like, ahh, that wasn't my best, you know?

Yeah. In fact I was gonna ask you about that because I feel like one of the reasons that I liked it so much, and I imagine this occurred to you as well, is just being a writer you get to a point where you've worked hard at this craft, and it's something that you're trying to be good at, and you think, like, the whole point is to be responsible to your readers and to give them something great, but in the corporate world of it, it's like the further you get, the more you realize you're working for these really rich publishers and the really rich advertisers that advertise with those publishers. The further into it you get the more you realize that it's not about producing great stuff for the people necessarily. If you want to actually further your career, it's like you're doing it for this smaller and smaller group of richer and richer patrons.

I used to freelance for all the big sites and newspapers and everything, and that's how I felt towards the end when I was doing that shit. It's like, I don't care about this shit at all, but this is my job. And sometimes at your job you have to do things that you aren't passionate about no matter what the job is.

And so switching to working for myself with the newsletter, that was like a big break from that. It's like, oh, wait, I get to do whatever I want? And obviously Hell World has a smaller audience than, you know, Esquire or the Boston Globe or whatever.

But now you get to be responsible to your readers, which was probably how you imagined it at the beginning.

Yeah, exactly. But that said, I did find, and I don't know if this is interesting at all, but as Hell World has gotten bigger, I worry sometimes, like, has it gotten worse? Because when I first started I was just doing any weird thing that occurred to me, and just kind of going by my gut instincts and saying fuck it let's see how this goes. And now that I have more readers I'm worried that I can't be too weird. Does that make sense?

Yeah. Like they have expectations.

Right? What if I just do some weird back and forth about a movie with a guy and put that out as opposed to a harrowing essay about… Well, frankly, I've kind of run out of personal trauma to mine here.

We just have to create more.

I know! I'm trying! I'm trying. I'm trying to ruin my life, day by day for the content.

Isn't that a constant pitfall or constant… I remember when I was in grad school with a bunch of other creative writing majors in the nonfiction program, and one of my classmates’ apartment had burned down. Someone was trying to console her. They're like, you know, at least, now you have something to write about! She goes, people keep saying that! I'll never forget that fucking line. God, we are pieces of shit.

That is a problem. No matter what I'm doing. I'm always like, what is the angle on this? My mom is crying. What can I do with this?  

How am I gonna write this up later?

A couple more things on The Menu. I wonder if you found yourself thinking the whole time… I'm not any kind of hard ass or anything. But there's a lot of movies like this where there comes a point where you have to be like… I understand that people are like, ok, hopefully this is going to turn out better than it seems. I'm just going to wait and not do anything rash. Maybe I'm missing something. But at a certain point in this movie, and  in a lot of movies, you have to go like, well, I'm going to die here. So I might as well go stab a guy, right?

Do you think that you would have taken the opportunity to get away, or would you…

It's the classic Mark Wahlberg. If I would have been on that plane…  But yeah. We all like to think, or at least I like to think of myself like, oh, no, I would have definitely fought back.

Right. I'm not saying I’m John Wick. I would certainly get my ass kicked by most of these big dudes with knives. But you have to try.

What did you think was going on with the mother character?

That's a tough question. I'm trying to remember exactly how much they actually gave us on her.

They said he stabbed his father. His father was a drunk, and he was abusive to the mother, and wrapped a telephone cord around her neck and so he stabbed the father in the leg with the scissors, which was the inspiration for the other chef’s dish.

I wonder if he was accusing her of being complicit in her own abuse or being too passive?

That was my thought. She was there because she didn’t save him from this abusive father, or she forced him to live with this father who gave him all this trauma. I loved that he tells that story to introduce a dish. If you watch Top Chef or any of these food shows, the food is always better with a personal story. A lot of times they’re trying to get more and more heartfelt and personal with these stories about dishes. I like that they took it to the point of this traumatic memoir or a story before a dish. I thought that was so brilliant.

In a way the dude is right. This is a stunning achievement! The menu itself, aside from the murder and sociopathy, I mean. No one is ever going to top that. He has done the most that a chef could do.

That’s a big part of why I love it. Taking the sort of Top Chef backstory before a dish to its ultimate conclusion.

It almost made me surprised there wasn’t already a baked-in survivor. Margot surviving seems to have been an accident of circumstance. Or maybe he cared so little about critics at that point? I almost wondered if he was going to leave the critic alive for that reason for a while. To write up his final coup de grâce.

If that was his masterpiece you would think he would want people to know about it.

What about Bodies Bodies Bodies? Does that fit into all of this forced trend piece thing we were talking about?

I didn’t see it. I should have. It slipped by. Did you?

I thought it was fun. I don’t think it’s really saying too much. I thought it did a good job of making Gen Z people appropriately annoying to a 40 something guy.

You also had Emily the Criminal on your best of the year list. Obviously a lot of class stuff going on in there. I don’t know if I'm shoehorning that one in here.

I think that is comparable. It’s definitely about class precarity. I liked that one because, first of all, it’s exciting. It made the crimes exciting unlike in the way that a lot of movies can make them boring or mundane. If I was doing any sort of heist I would be a nervous wreck the whole time. I think they really conveyed that well. I also think we do this thing where we want all poor people to be sympathetic or without blame in any way, and it’s just not the nature of poverty or any type of victimhood. I like that they made her sympathetic, but not like a perfect victim because that doesn’t exist.

I found that compelling about her. She wasn’t a hero, she was just a person that was suffering financially and in debt and she did what she had to do. We’re not used to seeing that. Those edges are usually sanded off so the character will be likable. Aubrey Plaza seems well suited for that. We all love her but we can also see her being an asshole in a way.

I think we’ve kind of done a disservice to anybody struggling in fiction because we always want to make them too perfect and too sympathetic.

I feel like it’s a uniquely American thing we do where we don’t want others to benefit to the point we will suffer more. I will have a worse lifestyle if it means no one “undeserving” gets anything.

Any final thoughts?

I think The Menu is just really sharp comedy writing more than anything else. It was one of those movies where I didn't feel like a line was out of place. All the jokes that they wanted to hit really did and that’s what I loved about it.

It was really funny. And it needed that to break the tension.

Alright this was fun. Do you think we said anything?

I think we made some points. We made some content.

Sometimes that's all people want.