For some of us, food isn’t just something you just shovel into your pie hole in order to fuel us as we gradually transform it to shit in our bellies. No, to some people, the preparation, cooking and presentation of food doesn’t just give life, it is life as it takes on a new life as a legitimate art form – even though we still chew it up into poop form to be deposited later.
With this in mind, we settle down to dine on Mark Mylod’s satirically acerbic The Menu, a comedy thriller that delivers a five course meal of dark chuckles while jabbing a sharp cooking utensil into the ribs of such targets as the self-important rich and wildly annoying foodies who just have to take photos of their food while mulling over the artistic and narrative choices of the chef. Not bad for the man who directed Ali G Indahouse. Featuring a killer cast and a pitch to die for, can this black comedy, with humor drier than a Chenin Blanc, manage titilate the pallett?
Unbearably anal foodie Tyler and his companion Margo are on their way to an insanely exclusive restaurant called Hawthorne that offers a dining experience like no other. Located on it’s own island and run by celebrity chef Julian Slowick, the guests are exclusive and the price is extortionate but numerous other guests have arrived, invited by Slowick himself, to what proves to be an unforgettable night. Joining Margo and Tyler are married, wealthy, regular customers Richard and Anne; renowned food critic Lillian and her yes-man editor Ted; a fading movie star and his assistant, Felicity and business partners Soren, Dave and Bryce, but before the festivities begin, overly harsh maitre d’, Elsa makes a point that Margo was not Tyler’s original guest.
The meal starts with a couple of somewhat eccentric dishes (a bread course with no bread, for example) and Margo is a little unsettled by how regimented Slowick runs his kitchen, but as the evening progresses matters turn evermore threatening and his speeches become more and more insulting. But soon the meal goes from tortillas with with incriminating images of fraud or infidelity lasered into them and graduates into acts of murder, suicide and mutilation as Slowick takes sadistic measures to get his point across.
But what is his point? He’s quite open and adamant about the fact that everyone will die tonight (a fact that doesn’t seem to bother the oblivious Tyler), but the only question that’s causing an issue for Slowick is Margo and which side of the evening she actually belongs on – with the staff or with the customers?
Either way, she’s still due to die as Slowick’s fanatical staff are dead set on following their head chef’s nihilistic orders to the letter – even to death; so has Margo and the rest of the guests truly begun their final meal?
Containing upper class snobs, sophisticated chuckles, spurts of oddly civilised violence and lashings of food porn, at times The Menu often feels like an episode of Frasier directed by Bryan Fuller as it plumbs its character’s grim fates for dark laughs. However, the laughs it mines are that of the more sedate, cynical kind and anyone expecting a broad, chaotic takedown of the class struggle may be surprised at how contained and composed the film is as it holds a stiff upper lip worthy of Ralph Fiennes’ calmly restrained chef. Playing far better as cruelly playful thriller, The Menu, despite its formidable cast, is admirably unshowy and events unfurl mostly in one location as if we’re watching some sort of malevolent play as the meals come and go and the end gets ever closer.
Ralph Fiennes is predictably awesome, utilising that sense of menacing intelligence as he takes revenge on a random gathering of people he feels personifies his complicated feelings about his diminished joy with the art of cooking. Dealing out stories and explanations tinged with a serving of gnawing bitterness and a sprinkle of sneering contempt, he calmly carries out his doomsday plan of murder and self sacrifice in a way that manages to diffuse a lot of the more unbelievable aspects of the script with style – I doubt Gordon Ramsay could wrangle a small army of dogmatic zealots to join him in orchestrating a murder/suicide pact. Sitting on the other side of the kitchen is Anya Talor-Joy’s Margo, who offers up yet another strong yet vunerable character with piercing eyes to her steadily growing collection (such as The Northman, Split and The Witch) as a late addition to the guest list after the punchable Tyler broke up with his girl friend. In fact the moments where Slowick is trying to get his head around where this fellow “service worker” (aka. Call girl) actually fits in with his rigorous plans form the real backbone of the film.
Lining up some tantalising side dishes (or supporting actors if you’re not desperately fishing for food puns), the film has Nicolas Holt as the infuriating Tyler who milks the character for every irritating, sycophantic, patronising tic he can – I defy you to not involuntarily clench your jaw every time he whips out his phone to snap a pic of whatever has been placed in front of him. Making up the rest of the diners is John Leguizamo as the washed up actor (allegedly based on Steven Seagal), Ozark’s Janet McTeer and even Who’s The Boss’ Judith Light who all nicely flesh out some thin characterizations.
However, the real entree here this the level of tension that courses throughout the film that isn’t even diffused by the thin lipped humour that’s liberally dotted throughout – whether it’s the patrons unsure that a graphic suicide that’s happened right in front of them is either real or part of a performance (double jeopardy folks, it’s both) or the increasingly droll title cards that describe every course that comes along, the humor is viciously spiteful, sharp as a razor and in some instances (one of Slowick’s demonstrations involves letting a female colleague he’s sexually harassed stab him with scissors in penance) genuinely uncomfortable.
Yes, the movie’s targets are hardly earth shatteringly original (the rich are total shits, who knew?) and some more down to earth viewers may openly wonder why nobody is going out of their way to escape, but for those who are willing to accept the eccentric rules of this seige-based satire will realise that escape isn’t so much the point as to see what harsh, food based lesson is Slowick is about to perform next.
Cool, calm, collected and cruelly amusing, The Menu is a memorable flinty comedy with atmosphere you can cut with a bewilderingly fancy knife. In fact, you’ll eat it up.