Director: Mark Mylod
Writer: Seth Reiss, Will Tracy
Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Fiennes, Hong Chau, Janet McTeer, Paul Adelstein, John Leguizamo, Aimee Carrero, Reed Birney, Judith Light, Rob Yang, Arturo Castro, Mark St. Cyr
Going to the cinema is much like going to a restaurant, and subsequently watching a movie is much like eating a dish. You want the establishment to be inviting and a place you wish to spend your money in comfortably, and you want the product you’re paying for to be worth your hard-earned cash and satisfy the senses you are there to appease. Will The Menu be worth your time and sending your compliments to the chef, or will you be sending this dish back and asking for a refund?
Tyler (Hoult) and his plus-one, Margot (Taylor-Joy), arrive on a private island that is home to the Hawthorn, a highly exclusive gourmet restaurant owned and operated by famous head chef Julian Slowik (Fiennes). They are joined by other specially selected diners, including a washed-up film star and an arrogant food critic, for an intense multiple-course meal that promises to be something of a magnum opus for Slowik. As the guests make their way through the courses, with each meal boasting a performance that makes everything more than just a fancy dish, Slowik reveals his ultimate desires for his esteemed visitors, in which they may get more than their just desserts.
I’m not going to pretend I know a lot about fine food or Michelin-star dining, but it’s easy to get the impression that writers Reiss and Tracy are making a note of how ridiculous the world of haute cuisine can be, with often-times overpriced nonsense and the lengths some “foodies” will go to in order to be seen at the latest desirable hot spot, no matter the food or the price. Mylod’s direction and collaboration with his crew, particularly cinematographer Peter Demming and production designer Ethan Tobman, brings to life much of the absurdity from Reiss and Tracy’s screenplay, particularly in the setting of the kitchen and the dishes prepared. Dominique Crenn, the world-renowned French chef and the only woman in the US with a three-star Michelin restaurant, lent her expertise to the design of Slowik’s dishes, lending excellent authenticity that is further bloated into absurdity by the filmmakers. All in all, the production value of The Menu makes the Hawthorn restaurant feel familiar yet worryingly peculiar.
There are many themes running through the visuals like slightly undercooked spaghetti through a thick Bolognese. The largest of those might be in the way all the characters, from Slowik himself and his diners all the way through to the kitchen staff and host of the Hawthorn, represent each of the seven deadly sins in some form or another (something to watch out for and allocate to the characters if you are tempted to watch this film). Much of the dialogue (and that which is not verbalised) says an abundance about man’s obsession, not just with food but with anything that can take over our lives and end up leaving us emptier than when we began. It’s like a warning not to overcomplicate anything; sometimes keeping it simple can be the saviour we need. This makes sense from the director of 2002’s Ali G: In Da House, the first of Mylod’s now-three feature films: simple humour for simpler times. But much of The Menu is just that, a little too simplified. It’s like a cake that hasn’t been baked properly, thus it is crispy and apparently appealing on the outside but still rather a gooey mess on the inside, with the inner substance not quite as up to scratch as the thrilling visuals.
Fiennes absolutely takes the cake as Slowik, at least in the first act. The chef is understated and causes a nervousness from the off, for both audience and characters alike. However as the film progresses, Slowik just becomes, for lack of another word, annoying. Fiennes does an excellent job with the material he is given, but the character himself ends up down a path that could have been more eery and sinister. Hoult and Taylor-Joy are great character actors, and their roles required a certain amount of hamming-it-up, which works out perfectly fine. Not award-winning, but fine. If anything, I felt they were somewhat outshined by Leguizamo in his supporting role as an actor who is still trying to hold on to his fame. Indeed, many of the supporting roles came across as more solid than that of Taylor-Joy’s role, despite Margot having many of the twists and turns set upon her.
Although there is fun to be had in The Menu, and certainly entertainment within some enjoyable shocks and thrills, a palette cleanser it is not. A relatively original idea for the plot, but it leaves more to be desired overall. The Menu may have worked better as a short film, with two or three courses less so as not to oversaturate the intended horror with metaphors, and perhaps allow more of the dark humour to play through. This film may not be something you would want as your main, but it’s recommended as a starter before digging into something more meaty and filling.
Sidenote: sorry for all the food analogies, but also I’m really not sorry, it was fun.