‘The Menu’ Serves Up the Last Supper of Class Warfare

The Menu - Credit: Eric Zachanowich/20th Century Studios
The Menu - Credit: Eric Zachanowich/20th Century Studios

Reservations at Hawthorne are notoriously hard to get. It only seats 12 guests (at $1250 a head) and does a single multi-course dining service per evening. Located on an island that also houses the staff and provides the bulk of the ingredients, it’s considered the best dining experience in the country, possibly even the world. And the chef, well…Chef Julian Slowik’s reputation as a culinary artist, an innovator and a perfectionist precedes him. Walk through the doors of this dining room, with its exposed kitchen and gorgeous views of the bay and a staff that functions with the lockstep discipline of a military brigade, and it’s like entering a cosmos dotted with Michelin stars.

This is the setting for The Menu, and as far as immaculately designed, high-end torture dungeons go, you could do a lot worse. The question is who, exactly, are the torturers and the torturees here. A movie that starts off as a scalpel-sharp satire, casually slides into becoming a skin-of-your-teeth horror film and ends as a flamebroiled screed in more ways than one, director Mark Mylod’s Grand Guignol take on the master-and-servant relationship of hospitality industries will not suit everyone’s palettes. But to paraphrase another filmmaker with a penchant for giddy cinematic shock treatments, if you like your revenge-based parables served burnt to a crisp or bloody as hell, there’s a good chance you’ll find this skewering mostly delectable. You’re merely advised to bring a hearty appetite for destruction.

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To set the table: A handful of guests have been invited to this notoriously exclusive eatery for an invite-only event. Three finance-bro stooges (Arturo Castro, Mark St. Cyr and Rob Yang) sit next to a fading movie star (John Leguizamo) and his put-upon assistant (Aimee Carrero). Over by the entryway, there’s an older married couple (Reed Birney and Judith Light) who are the closest thing Hawthorne has to regulars. At a two-top in the dead center of the dinning are, you’ll find a famed, fanged restaurant critic (Janet McTeer) and her obsequious editor (Paul Adelstein). No one’s really sure who the silent old woman in the corner is, but she sure can guzzle down the vino. A host (Hong Chau) rules over the guests with the stern authority of a majordomo and the calmness of a viper.

And then there’s the obnoxious, obsessive “food influencer” Tyler (Nicolas Hoult, who — with this and The Great — is quickly cornering the market on A+ d-bags) and his date. Her name is Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), and she’s a last-minute addition to this dinner; Tyler’s original plus-one is no longer in his good graces or his life. Personally, she could care less about eating rare seared scallops served on a rock or exquisite mixes of oysters and caviar and foam, but Tyler — he’s seen every episode of Chef’s Table! Twice!! — is in heaven, and footing the bill. When Chef Slovik (Ralph Fiennes) suddenly appears, issuing plating orders to his kitchen minions with a deafening clap and making philosophical proclamations that the guests must “taste, savor, relish — but don’t eat” the conceptual menu he’s prepared, Margot’s companion is in a state of ecstasy. This man is his hero.

Except Chef has taken a curious interest in this unforeseen guest. She’s a substitution, and as he will later bellow, there are no substitutions at Hawthorne! “You’re not supposed to be here,” he tells Margot, staring at her with an intensity bordering on lunacy. A few courses later, she will understand exactly why her presence isn’t part of his grand plan.

It’s in this first hour or so that The Menu is at its strongest, before it properly commits to being a baroque thriller and is content to merely be a fuck you to foodies, status seekers, the rich and vapid, and the gloriously extreme absurdities of fine dining in general. The meals themselves (prepared by Atelier Creen’s owner-chef Dominique Creen) definitely double as XXX food porn, even as screenwriters Seth Reiss and Will Tracy amp up the ridiculousness that accompanies the sublimity of such 1-percenter cuisine. A bread course is served without bread, so its absence will inspire you to thoughtfully consider the dew-drop sized accompaniments that much more. One paired wine is sourced “not just from a single vineyard, but from a single vine“; another is designed to leave one’s mouth with notes of “oak, rich cherry and tobacco notes, and a faint sense of longing and regret.” Tyler’s fetishizing of each morsel and its celebrity-chef creator seems outrageously over the top, but only if you’ve never spent time around such folks, or perused their blogs/Instagram feeds. One particular line may or may not be a direct subtweet to Stanley Tucci. Don’t get us started on the food critic’s dialogue.

Then, courtesy of two courses titled “Memory” and “The Mess,” the evening’s platings begin to drift into the realm of performance art, and The Menu unsheathes both its figurative and literal knives. This is where the horror film aspects begin to take over, and it becomes apparent that the main dish of the night is the one best served cold. It also reveals itself to be something that deals in binaries when it comes to which side of the dining table you’re on — there are merely those that serve and those that are served. Slovik recognizes that Margot is more of the former rather than the latter, and it’s their series of scenes together that acts as the protein for what threatens to become nothing but a lot of genre garnish served medium well. (Fiennes and Taylor-Joy make especially good scene partners, with his slithery sophistication and chilly amorality butting up nicely against her coming-in-hot righteousness and wide-eyed fear. They seem to bring out the best in each other as performers.) Success has made a failure of Slovik’s home, which is to say, his sense of being an artist and in finding joy in what he does. So he’s keen to cook up payback. This is a movie that wants to serve up the last supper of class warfare. And if there’s anything that Mylod understands as a veteran director of several key Succession episodes, it’s the rancidity of the entitled rich and payback.

Whether you feel The Menu‘s concluding course — less a third act and more of an extended climax — is a worthy way of tying things up or not is a matter of taste. We’re of the mindset that it’s too clever by half, and that the way it sets up its version of a final-girl stand-off leaves you with a slight case of narrative acid reflux. Some of the clunkier aspects of this ambitious film’s gambit were already glaring before it drops the check at the table, and its ending only makes those elements stand out that much more. Still, to ding this for not completely sticking the landing — from going from fulfilling to simply filling — is to ignore so much of what this straight-outta-Jacobean-theatre chamber piece does right. Its heart and its anger are in the right place, and for a good long while, Mylod and his cast whip up the sort of slow-burning, dread-infused, darkly comic type of cri de coeur that appeals to the class-conscious and the enraged epicurious. You just wished they left it in the oven a bit longer.

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