Archive for January 2, 2023

The Menu

January 2, 2023

menu

Who eats the wispy, elite stuff served up by chefs like Ferran Adrià and, in The Menu, by the well-regarded Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes)? Certainly not you and me, unless you routinely drop $1,250 on a meal. No, it’s for the rich and jaded. And the movie aims both barrels at those who have that kind of money, and would spend that kind of money on something that, as Slowik notes, “turns to shit in your guts.” The food doesn’t matter — it’s the status of being one-percenter enough to get a seat at the fancy table. On a mordant eat-the-rich level — though, to be fair, the film is never so obvious as to dabble in cannibalism — I enjoyed The Menu. But if you’ve consumed enough black-comedy horror about snobby gourmets getting their comeuppance, nothing much here will shock you.

Our entry point into this rarefied world is a young couple, Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) and Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), who journey by boat with ten others to Hawthorne, an exclusive restaurant on a private island. Chef Slowik rules his kitchen with military precision; essentially, he puts on a show, acting the way his audience expects a deluxe, eccentric chef to act. Tyler is a big fan of Slowik; the others, including a food critic (Janet McTeer), just buy tickets to the experience as a badge of superiority, or to find the less-than-robust fare wanting because, when you get down to it, most of these people aren’t as refined as they want to appear, and just want to stuff their faces like the brutal gourmand Mr. Spica in this film’s nearest ancestor, Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.

Margot is not what she seems, and neither is Slowik; they gravitate to each other, carrying similar demons, and Fiennes and Taylor-Joy do their nimblest work opposite each other. Their scenes will play all the better a second time through. Hong Chau is elegantly menacing as Elsa, who deals with the guests using a quiet but deadly politesse (she’s having quite the season — she’s in The Whale and Kelly Reichardt’s upcoming Showing Up). The acting, especially John Leguizamo as a past-it hack movie star and Judith Light as a rich matron in whose eyes we can see the light of hope slowly dying, is top-notch; the director Mark Mylod clearly sets the stage (The Menu could almost as easily be done as theater — it is theater) and gets out of the way so this crew of performers can assemble some fine dishes.

But once you’ve seen what the movie is, you’ve seen the strings, and there’s about half an hour to go in which you wait to see how savage the situation gets. Pretty savage. Anthony Bourdain would have cackled his dark cackle all the way through it. But, again, if your diet has been long on stuff like Cook, Thief and various horror comedies set in restaurants, you’ll most likely see the final course coming; the only suspense is what the ingredients are. The writers, Will Tracy and Seth Reiss, have typed up a doozy, and I can’t fault the showmanship. But I kept hearing in my head the voice of my late friend and fellow horror fan Ken Souza, who would have given the film points for craft (Peter Deming’s cinematography is swanky-creamy throughout) but rattled off like ten different sources it cribs from.

I am a little more forgiving of lapses in originality. As Godard supposedly opined, it’s not where you take it from, it’s where you take it to. And The Menu takes it to a satisfyingly apocalyptic conclusion, the only way, really, for such a nihilist-lite work to see itself out. (I say lite because not everything turns to shit in its guts.) There’s nothing much the matter with it — there’s just not, finally, anything great about it. As satire, it sets up easily hissable Richie Riches without much shading. And the film’s (valid) grumbling about the inequity between classes would have more bite if we got to know anyone on Slowik’s kitchen crew at all. (One is reduced to a loud portion of Slowik’s ghastly performance art; one poses as something else in a somewhat pointless diversion; the rest are as indistinct as most of the maggots in Full Metal Jacket.) The Menu is a competently prepared dish that would like to be thought of, ultimately, as a well-made cheeseburger. But it feels weird on our tongues, like the reconstituted, teleported steak in David Cronenberg’s The Fly. In more senses than one, it lacks taste.