“The Menu” – ★ ★ ★ ★
By now, we can assume that the majority of America’s film critics have exhausted all the truly clever, extremely good and moderately mediocre food and cooking puns in the service of reviewing Mark Mylod’s black comedy “The Menu.”
So, the true challenge here would be to get through this particular review without succumbing to the overwhelming temptation to use words like “half-baked” or “well-done.”
Not since Peter Greenaway’s lavish, adults-only 1989 artsy crime drama “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover” has a restaurant-based movie packed such an unnerving satirical bite. (Oops. That didn’t last long, did it?)
“The Menu” takes place on an island occupied by a single business, the exclusive and expensive Hawthorne Restaurant, where the rich and haughty, pretentious and naughty gather to experience the meal of a lifetime.
You just know that the evening will go off-course the moment the chef turns out to be Voldemort himself, Ralph Fiennes. As the quasi-fascistic Chef Julian Slowik, Fiennes runs his state-of-the-art, stainless-steel kitchen with an iron oven glove. His dutiful cooking staff assembles in the open-space kitchen, standing in full view of the diners like an elite paramilitary unit.
by signing up you agree to our terms of service A vapid foodie fan (Nicholas Hoult) receives a startling piece of information from megalomaniac chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) in the black comedy thriller “The Menu.” – Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures
When Chef claps his hands, they snap to immediate attention, awaiting his command like Imperial troopers armed with spatulas.
“Do not eat! Taste!” Chef orders his easily manipulated guests. “Don’t eat! Our menu is too precious for that.”
At $1,250 a plate, that would be a correct assessment.
If you listen closely as the guests arrive, you get an idea for how self-centered, vacuous and petty they can be.
A man only identified as Famous Movie Star (John Leguizamo) sits down for dinner with his assistant Felicity (Aimee Carrero). They care nothing about food; they came to feed their egos.
Three young and obnoxiously wealthy tech guys (Mark St. Cyr, Arturo Castro, Rob Yang) take up a table near Lillian Bloom (Janet McTeer), a food critic who enjoys her ability to close any eatery with a few cutting remarks. Her editor Ted (Paul Adelstein) accompanies her.
Nearby, a returning senior couple, Anne and Richard (Judith Light and Reed Birney) trade snide remarks.
The main couple, Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) and Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), seem totally mismatched. A total foodie, he hangs on every condescending word from the comically snobby wine stewards. Margot feels embarrassed for him as he grovels for the Chef’s constant approval.
Taylor-Joy’s saucer eyes were made for rolling, and that’s what they do as she becomes our stable, cynical surrogate witness to this display of arrogance and toxic self-importance.
She doesn’t buy into the culinary cult that Chef has carefully constructed. She does not fit, and Chef knows it. But he doesn’t yet know why.
“The Menu” comes in chapters, each one named after a meal course. (When they get to the chapter titled “Mess,” be prepared for a rapid change in the customer satisfaction ratings.)
Adam McKay, director and co-writer of my best film of 2015, the brilliantly staged bank-fail comedy “The Big Short,” serves as a producer here, so you can count on the rich and clueless (and writers of wine labels) getting skewered. (Oops. Did it again.)
British TV director Mark Mylod (he has also directed 13 episodes of HBO’s “Succession”) keeps alarming discoveries coming and makes sure we stay connected to the narrative as it dives into the absurd and deadly consequences of megalomania.
“The Menu” also points out a peculiar human shortcoming, some people’s propensity for doing nothing to protect themselves.
By the time the diners respond to the Chef’s psychological and physical torments (like the killer in “Saw,” he knows all their naughty secrets), the cake is already baked. (Sorry, another one.)
Chef has a question for them: “Why did it take you so long to resist?”
Yes, “The Menu” offers plenty of comedy, the dark kind that endorses critical thinking skills and issues a stark warning against blindly following unhinged, powerful, charismatic leaders.
Otherwise, your goose will be cooked. (I do apologize.)