What does horror comedy “The Menu” mean for Alexander Payne?

Alexander Payne during the 66th San Sebastian International Film Festival at the Kursaal Palace on September 25, 2018 in San Sebastian, Spain

Nebraska-born filmmaker Alexander Payne is directing a new horror comedy, The Menu.

Alexander Payne is at it again with another bizarre bombshell. He’s directing an upcoming horror comedy called The Menu; certainly not what we expected his next project to be. This will be the director’s first foray into the horror genre and it’s really difficult to know what to expect.

Although billed as a comedy also, it’s strange to comprehend Payne playing with horror tropes - exciting, but very, very strange. According to Empire, the narrative “...focuses on a young couple who visits an exclusive destination restaurant on a remote island where the acclaimed chef has prepared a lavish tasting menu, along with some shocking surprises.” Perhaps we can expect something like Erle C. Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls but with a quirky, culinary twist. He’s certainly grown to be more ambitious in recent years; sadly, many see that as the problem.

To praise Payne’s work, one might say that he is the modern master of the male midlife crisis. His protagonists are often pitiful, flawed and broken in some capacity, left feeling desperate and disconnected. Over the years he has most notably helmed Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants, Nebraska and Downsizing. It’s certainly an impressive oeuvre and arguably he’s one of the greatest comedy filmmakers of the current century. This would perhaps be voiced more frequently if he hadn’t followed up Nebraska with Downsizing.

The latter 2017 film saw the director elaborate on the comedy-drama genre to fuse in elements of science fiction to little avail. It’s largely considered his worst film and was accused of trying to juggle way too many ideas, none of them given enough attention to possess any real power. Maybe Payne sacrificed comfortability for grand vision, as it lacked the discipline of his previous efforts, although, in its defence, it does have more merits than most give it credit for. Despite this, the idea of Payne branching out into the horror genre is a little worrying.

He works best when his films are grounded, and his brand of comedy often stems from the absurdity and comical qualities of real life. His protagonists are commonly found in more believable situations, themselves authentic, and sometimes he’ll drop in something a little odd - yet, always legitimate. Downsizing marked a departure from this and The Menu certainly serves as confirmation. Although the scope of Downsizing was far greater than anything he’d done - operating as a science fiction drama - all of the director’s recurring themes were still present; they just lost prevalence to more pressing themes of immigration and environmental concern as the narrative went on.

By the sound of things, we can expect more social commentary and experimentation from his next project. Hopefully, it works out; we would truly love to see Payne make another great film and surely he’s still capable. If he doesn’t, he’s given us plenty already, it would just be a shame to conclude on a series of headscratchers. Alas, we’re ready to dine with Payne once again, all we need is The Menu.

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