How much would you pay for the “perfect” dining experience if money was no object to you? For twelve well-off (and some snobby in their own right) customers, the chance of eating in an upscale restaurant on a remote island is a bucket list item. For those unfamiliar with horror settings, going somewhere away from civilization, joined by people you don’t know, is an omen. However, that’s one of the main points of absurdity The Menu has a joy poking fun at. The film is a chess match between the intricate and often overlooked aspects of cooking and the demands they incur from various “demanding” customers.
The island of Hawthorn is plush with a beautiful forest and a modern, open-concept restaurant where a little over a dozen guests have made the expensive trip to have a meal of a lifetime. However, a big house in the island’s corner is off-limits to anyone. It’s the home where famous chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) lives as he commands his platoon of students with a military-esque regiment. As far as the guest list is concerned, it’s a who’s who of fine-tuned satire into a very pretentious sect of restaurant culture.
You have the long-time couple Richard and Anne Liebbrandt (Judith Light and Reed Birney) on the last vestiges of their relationship, who go to places like Hawthorn out of routine. A movie star with no name hinting at his declining stardom (John Leguizamo) and his assistant, Felicity (Aimee Carrero). There’s also food critic Lilian Bloom (Janet McTeer), that feels the need to empty her extensive vocabulary with every dish, and her editor, Ted (Paul Adelstein). Tech bro business partners Soren, Dave, and Bryce (Arturo Castro, Mark St. Cyr, Rob Yang), an ensemble that feels every experience should be catered to them.
To round it all out is Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) and his date, Margot (Anya-Taylor Joy). Tyler is the head of the Julian Slowik fan club as an obsessed “foodie” — explaining every choice of dish the stone-faced chef chooses. But Margot (whose real name is Erin) is not supposed to be here — her inclusion within this very tailored guest list irks the extremely serious Slowik. Slowik runs a tight ship, aided by his cold and hilarious maître d’ Elsa (Hong Chau). Throughout the film’s runtime, there’s a battle of resolve between the two characters — something Fiennes and Taylor Joy play off well. Director Mark Mylod and writers Seth Reiss and Will Tracy walk a fine line between macabre suspense and sharp satire on restaurant culture. Only Margot/Erin has an inkling of something going wrong. The other characters are too wrapped up in their varying degrees of self-indulge to see past themselves — only to be interrupted by a thunderous clap to announce their course.
The food selection on this night is also a joke in itself. There’s a selection of assorted bread dips with no bread and sea plants with rocks at one point. One would question why some would pay excessive money for a minimum amount of food. That’s the point — the look of status over food artistry and preparation value. (It’s funny to see food critic Lilian and fanboy Tyler try to rationalize these dishes). A complete disregard for the technique and stress of the chef profession has made Slowik extremely bitter and callous. The night takes a drastic, dangerous tone when a meal called “the mess” is introduced. As blunt as this situation is presented, The Menu quickly shifts tones to keep the audience on its toes.
As much as this film provided commentary on the extreme asks and discarding of the service community, there’s also a part that looks at Slowik’s character with a critical eye. You’ll want the impending comeuppance of the various characters — especially in how actively they devalue the craft that a restaurant like Hawthorn painstakingly prepares for them. However, Slowik’s character is very aware of the reverence of his church of creativity and has actively chosen this path for years. He also must accept some blame when considering how tense this night is. The same things Slowik finds unfilling are the drivers of his success and wealth.
Even with the heavier topics in play, The Menu‘s main engine is to invoke laughs and snickers out of you. It might even implore you to leave an extra tip or not be as difficult to your server the next night out.
Photo Credit: Searchlight Pictures