2022 has been quite the year for “eat the rich” satire. We’ve seen the wealthy and privileged skewered in straightforward takedowns such as Ruben Östlund’s terrific “Triangle of Sadness”. They’ve also been torched in playful genre romps like Rian Johnson’s “Glass Onion”. The latest to do it just might be my favorite. “The Menu” never hides what it sets out to do. Yet of this recent batch of movies, it might be the craftiest in its execution. It throws a little bit of everything in the pot and let’s it simmer. Altogether it makes for one wickedly satisfying meal.
Mark Mylod directs this mouthwatering black comedy horror-thriller that exists in a culinary world where language like “ruining palettes”, “flavor profiles”, and “mouthfeel” (???) roll off the tongues of foodies like common speech. The deliciously pulpy story (penned by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy) defies a simple description. It has so much on its mind and takes some pretty wild swings. But it would be a disservice to share them, because this truly is a movie where the least you know better.
The vast majority of the story takes place within the stylish contours of Hawthorne, a renowned restaurant for the rich and famous cozily located on its own private island. It’s where twelve customers per night can enjoy an over four-hour lavish dining experience for $1,250 a head. There they’ll partake in a meal painstakingly planned by Chef Julian Slowik (a devilishly fun Ralph Fiennes).
Over the course of the evening, guests will be able to watch Chef Slowik and his team of cooks meticulously prepare each high-concept dish in an open kitchen adjacent to their dining area. Once ready, Chef Slowik announces each course with a thunderous clap followed by a self-gratifying monologue about its inspiration. For him food is like a religion, and the restaurant is his temple. But on this particular evening he has something different in mind. He’s offering his specially selected group of diners an “exclusive experience”.
Among those holding reservations is a young couple, Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) and Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy). He’s an insufferable gastronome wannabe; she our representative – seeing things the way we see them; saying the things we’re thinking. You get the impression that Tyler probably maxed out his credit card to get their reservations. He’s no trust fund baby. He just wants people to think he is. And his facade of upper-class status and gastronomical savvy is paper-thin to the point where even Margot begins poking fun at him.
Tyler and Margot are joined by a collection of deeply flawed one-percenters. There’s the popular (and pompous) food critic Lillian Bloom (Janet McTeer) and her fawning editor Ted (Paul Adelstein), a semi-washed up movie star Damien Garcia (John Leguizamo) and his younger assistant/side dish Felicity (Amiee Carrero), three smug silver-spoon investors (Rob Yang, Arturo Castro, Mark St. Cyr), and a wealthy older couple (Reed Birney and Judith Light) who seem utterly miserable together.
After a short boat ride to the island, the group of hungry strangers are greeted by Hawthorne’s maî·tre d, Elsa (Hong Chau) who gives them a brief tour before escorting them to their tables. They’re then introduced to Chef Slowik who kicks off their night of upper-class indulgence. Or so they thought. With each new course things get a little weirder and progressively darker. But it’s just theater…stagecraft, right? Right? “It’s all part of the menu”, Chef Slowik repeatedly insists. But is it?
As things get crazier and more twisted, you can sense Mylod and company having a field day running Hawthorne’s fresh batch of guests through the wringer. As for us, it’s a blast trying to figure out where the film is going next. It’s just wacky enough to be unpredictable, and even when we get a feel for what Mylod is going for, there are enough surprise turns to keep us guessing. The film also keeps us laughing with these hilarious dashes of black comedy that seem to land at the most unexpected times. It’s a key ingredient that adds flavor to an already seasoned and savory feast.
The sterling ensemble cast is just a crucial. It starts with the fiendishly good Ralph Fiennes whose dry, solemn presence can either be bone-chilling or disarmingly funny. He shrewdly sells us a disturbingly complex character whose genius is only outdone by his smugness. Yet there’s a darker layer to Chef Slowik which Fiennes teases yet keeps snugly hidden until just the right time. It’s a remarkably measured performance and the one that keeps the film from tipping over into full-blown camp.
There’s just so much to love about “The Menu”: its sparkling cast, its gonzo premise, its gripping storytelling, and Mark Mylod’s pinpoint direction (and that’s just for starters). And even if it doesn’t perfectly stick its landing (something I’m still a bit unsure about), the film’s almost giddy, full-throttled takedown of culinary culture and the uber-wealthy is otherwise so well conceived and executed. I’m still thinking about it a week after seeing it, and I’m already hungry to see it again. “The Menu” is now showing in theaters.
Final Food Pun Count: 14