The Menu, Glass Onion, and the Limits of the Eat-the-Rich Satire

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Over these past few years, the phrase “eat the rich” has been accumulating quite a bit of popularity in our cultural lexicon. Originally an anticapitalist slogan coined by political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “eat the rich” has become more applicable than ever, used by the masses as a response to a growing dissatisfaction toward billionaires and other beneficiaries of the 1%.

It’s also been thematized heavily in contemporary pop culture, gaining traction starting in 2019 with the advent of films like the riveting Best Picture winner Parasite, the cat-and-mouse thriller Ready or Not, the star-studded whodunnit Knives Out, and the stripper crime comedy Hustlers. Each of these stories attempted to critique the systems and ideologies that drive and preserve the ever-widening wealth gap between the haves and have nots, with Parasite arguably being the platonic ideal of this socioeconomic commentary trend.

2022 has seen another uptick in “eat the rich” media: the absurdist Palme d’Or victor Triangle of Sadness, the foodie-skewering satire The Menu, and the Knives Out sequel Glass Onion. But where Triangle of Sadness’s parody of the upper class remains a mostly entertaining (if imperfect) romp, The Menu and Glass Onion reveals the limitations of what narrative storytelling can accomplish in condemning a demographic that could care less about being criticized.

Directed by Succession mainstay Mark Mylod and produced by Adam McKay, The Menu promises a delectably fun time — at least on the surface. Its plot centers around Margo Mills (Anya Taylor-Joy), her pompous gourmet boyfriend Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), and a series of wealthy guests who dine at an exclusive restaurant, located on a remote island and run by esteemed chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). Along with his militant hostess Elsa (Hong Chau), and his strictly regimented kitchen staff, Julian prepares the guests for an evening of carefully curated conceptual cuisine, but eventually delivers some nefarious surprises that throws everyone for a loop.

While it boasts a duo of spiky performances from Taylor-Joy and Fiennes, The Menu’s take on “eat the rich” is disappointingly shallow, especially given that virtually every character is a broadly stroked cipher that embodies a certain type of bourgeois personality. The piecemeal nibbles of background we get of them feels intentional, a means of illustrating the vacuity and superficiality of their lifestyles, but their hollowness doesn’t necessarily make for an interesting narrative.

Because of these characters’ shallow nature, the film is a manipulative cop-out, an all-too-easy method of painting them in an unsympathetic light so that we can relish their inevitable comeuppance later on without feeling any remorse. The one intriguing if still somewhat flawed emotional throughline in The Menu is the relationship between Julian and Margo, a uniquely empathetic dynamic between two outsiders who clearly resent the insiders.

This is the one element of The Menu that gets close to capturing a very real, very pertinent observation about the dehumanization of essential workers. If only the writing didn’t render that argument completely incoherent and moot by making Julian himself an enabler of that dehumanization, ruthless and clearly abusive toward his own staff. (If you’re looking for a cooking drama that confronts the demons of its hotheaded yet brilliant chef with much sharper nuance, humor, and compassion, just watch FX’s The Bear.)

The Menu’s transparent targets but smug aims speak to the restrictions of its selling point, which is essentially “rich people are the worst, so let’s just watch them suffer.” Enticing as it is to provide that kind of wish fulfillment for audiences, how exactly can The Menu justify that idea effectively if everyone who goes and sees it will already be in on the joke? What is the film’s ultimate function, if not to stroke the egos of the people behind this production?

Glass Onion fares slightly better with a more buoyant tone, a deliciously hammy Daniel Craig performance, and a better defined objective in lampooning aristocratic figures in the age of influencers and tech bros. Oddly enough, though, Rian Johnson’s follow-up to his critical and commercial hit shares some similarities to The Menu, specifically how it arrives at the same self-congratulatory conclusion, albeit in a more convoluted fashion.

The film also features a stacked cast of actors evoking real-life rich folk archetypes who gather together on a remote island helmed by a morally dubious antagonist. Unlike The Menu’s underwritten execution, Johnson makes a painstaking effort to color each character’s relationship to the Elon Musk-esque billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton) — how his financial and social clout influences their choices and how their complicity ultimately protects his self-interests.

Miles’ power over his friends, and their relationships with him, are essential to the plot. But how effective is the social commentary intended by the narrative really, when Johnson’s intentions are already evident from the get-go? Strip away all the bright and shiny bells and whistles and Glass Onion basically carries the same ideas and impulses as The Menu, just in a different, more stylistically pleasing font.

Of course, not every tale of cultural angst against wealth-hoarding needs to be a multilayered, sophisticated thought-provoker in order to be cathartic. Setting aside its somewhat low-hanging fruit jabs at highbrow culture, Triangle of Sadness still manages to imbue some dimension into its characters.

Each member the film introduces on its European cruise setting is drawn as a real person: the insecure Instagram model couple (Harris Dickinson and Charlbi Dean), the charming Russian oligarch (Zlatko Buric), the dismissed housekeeper (a scene-stealing Dolly de Leon), the lonely tech millionaire (Henrik Dorsin), and the boat’s stringent head of staff (Vicki Berlin). Witnessing both their humanity and their vulnerability, particularly in the film’s queasy second act of seasick punishment, gives us more of a reason to invest in their arcs as opposed to taking the easy route of laughing at their vapidness and misfortunes.

Even with an ambiguous ending, Triangle of Sadness understands very clearly what drives its characters to try and control their circumstances, when their only frame of reference for power is capitalism and their resources are stripped away from them. Glass Onion and The Menu, on the other hand, struggle to acknowledge that, despite how hypocritical and close-minded their actions are, their affluent characters are also human. These satires simply view their characters as one-dimensional caricatures, whose toxic behaviors are punished but never fully explored.

Considering the real-life hostile takeovers and disastrous, destructive decision-making from actual rich people, it’s becoming increasingly harder to believe that contemporary satires, let alone ones that poke fun at the upper class, can be vehicles for social change. In order for satire to be truly successful in galvanizing an audience, it has to be more than just interested in telling us things we already know; it must also challenge us to see beyond what we think we know.

It also makes for a more interesting viewing experience when we are primed to identify with characters who we would otherwise find repugnant in real life. Serialized stories like HBO’s Succession and The White Lotus in particular benefit from this, having more room to build out the psychologies and motivations of their characters and therefore more opportunities to flesh out their satirical observations.

But without truly probing those thorny gray areas, we get fed stuff like The Menu and Glass Onion, out-of-touch products of The Discourse whose heavy-handed class critiques don’t produce any meaningful insights. In that regard, they are a precise reflection of our spiritually and creatively starved time, where we have little to eat and will take whatever scraps we can get.

The Menu, Glass Onion, and the Limits of the Eat-the-Rich Satire
Sam Rosenberg

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