THE MENU

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Mark Mylod

Stars: Ralph Fiennes, Nicholas Hoult, Anya Taylor-Joy, Hong Chau, Judith Light, Janet McTeer, Reed Birney, John Leguizamo, Aimee Carrero, Paul Adelstein, Rob Yang, Mark St Cyr, Arturo Castro, Rebecca Koon, Adam Aalderks, Matthew Cornwell.

There have been a lot of foodie films, but none as darkly funny or as unsettling as this offbeat, edgy and absurdist black comedy from filmmaker Mark Mylod, who is best known for his work on television series like Succession, etc. While most food-themed films make you hungry, The Menu is likely to put you off any thoughts of dining out afterwards. 

The Menu is set in Hawthorne, an exclusive restaurant that only seats twelve people at time and the guests each pay $1250 for the privilege of dining. The restaurant is located on a small remote island which is only accessible by boat. The restaurant is run by celebrity chef Julian Slowik (played by Ralph Fiennes), renowned for his molecular gastronomy and his carefully selected menus that use only natural ingredients sourced from plants on the island.  

On this night the distinguished guests arrive expecting something special, but the evening becomes increasingly unsettling and threatening. Slowik has deliberately chosen the guests, who have all been invited because they are guilty of some failings and are about to get their comeuppance in unexpected fashion. Revenge is a dish best served cold, and tonight revenge is on the menu at Hawthorne. 

Among the well-heeled guests is snooty food critic (Janet McTeer), who was instrumental in launching Slowik’s career but who has lately been more critical and dismissive of his derivative food choices and his restaurant, and her editor Ted (Paul Adelstein). There is also John Leguizamo’s faded film star reeling from the disastrous failure of his latest film and his bored assistant Felicity (Aimee Carrero). There is an older urbane couple (Reed Birney and Judith Light), and three business associates (Rob Yang, Mark St Cyr and Arturo Castro), who have been cooking the books and ripping off their investors. And there is Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), an unabashed fanboy who is obsessed with Slowik and his style of culinary arts, but he is also something of a pretentious twat who insists on photographing each meal and savouring each morsel. He has brought with him Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy, recently seen in David O Russell’s star-studded Amsterdam), who is a last-minute replacement for the evening as his original date dropped out.  

Margot unfortunately doesn’t fit in with Slowik’s carefully laid plans for the evening. While he tries to figure her out, she stands up to him and is not impressed by the elaborate production of the meals. Slowik introduces each dish with a hand clap (which grows more ominous with each course) and strange personal anecdotes, but each course becomes more outlandish. Slowik is obviously something of a psychopath following some sort of masterplan, assisted by his unpleasant robotic-like assistants, which include Elsa (Hong Chau, from Watchmen, etc). The evening grows more disturbing and intimidating, and the guests become increasingly nervous as the tension slowly rises and Slowik seems more unhinged.  

The Menu has been written by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, who have written for the satirical paper The Onion and obviously have a well-developed sense for biting satire. Apparently, Tracy conceived the idea for The Menu while visiting Norway, where he took a boat ride to fancy restaurant on a nearby remote island and realised that he was stuck there until the meal was finished. With its themes of class, guilt, elitism, privilege, greed, foodie culture, consumption and obsession, The Menu resembles Mimi Cave’s recent black comedy Fresh as well as other classic films such as Bunuel’s 1972 satire The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoise. This transgressive satire is also quite critical of the current trend towards molecular or infusion cooking and the toll of the high-pressure environment of successful kitchens. 

The performances from the small cast are effective. Hoult is great as the somewhat naïve Tyler. Fiennes is suitably cold and arrogant as the tyrannical and haughty Slowik and brings a sense of menace to his performance. He has an imposing presence that is well suited to the role. Chau is strong as Slowik’s loyal maitre de Elsa, and her deadpan delivery is perfectly attuned to the film’s tone. But it is Taylor Joy who stands out as the feisty Margot who provides a strong foil for Fiennes’ character as she stands up to him and questions the pretentious nature of the offerings. She and Fiennes develop a prickly tension that crackles. 

There is some superb production design from Ethan Tobman (Free Guy, etc) that creates the cold and clinical and sterile interior of the exclusive restaurant. The cinematography from Peter Deming (better known for his work with David Lynch) is crisp and enriches the creepy atmosphere of the restaurant. 

Unlike a lot of other food-based films that leave you hungry for more, The Menu leaves you with something of a nasty aftertaste. Nonetheless this high concept black comedy is still something of a guilty pleasure. 

★★★☆

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