Dark comedy serves just deserts
'The Menu' will fill you up and put a smile on your face
Comedian Patton Oswalt has a hilarious bit titled “Great Food Is Cooked By Psychos,” in which he equates his past love for out-there authors and musicians to his recent adoration with worryingly eccentric chefs. It’s a notion that HBO’s Succession director Mark Mylod and The Onion alums Seth Reiss and Will Tracy must have had in mind when crafting the razor-sharp black comedy The Menu.
As one would hope, the jokes in the film cut a bit deeper than, “Hey, isn’t it funny how tiny the portions are at fancy restaurants?” and get into why this kind of snobby subculture continues to thrive. When the movie starts to infuse more thriller and horror elements, it can sometimes get a bit out of its depth, but overall, this is a devilishly fun dish.
We meet Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) as they board a boat with 10 others who are also traveling to Hawthorne, a luxury restaurant situated on a private island. Each couple is paying $2,500 to savor a meal made by idiosyncratic celebrity chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) and his slavishly devoted kitchen staff. When the group arrives, they’re given a tour of the grounds by austere maître d’ Elsa (Hong Chau) before heading inside the lavishly designed restaurant. Slowik’s introduction and the amuse-bouche seem normal enough, but with each subsequent course, his preambles get stranger and the mood in the dining room gets more tense. Even though fanboy Tyler is still enraptured by the experience, Margot’s unwillingness to eat any of the prepared food draws Slowik’s ire and curiosity.
Pretentious foodies and the ultra-rich may make for soft targets in a satire, but The Menu serves them their just deserts just the same. When the guests first arrive, the mood is not dissimilar from an Agatha Christie whodunnit, but as the night goes on, the film turns into more of a playful dark comedy about the kinds of people who would pay this much for food. There’s the Anton Ego-esque food critic and her obsequious editor, a trio of tech bros, a washed up actor with his assistant, and a businessman and his wife, who converse as if they’re enjoying soup and breadsticks at Olive Garden. Even before Slowik sardonically dispenses with moral judgments about who these people are and why he suspects they’ve come, it’s clear none of them actually care about his cooking in the first place.
Margot wasn’t Tyler’s originally intended guest, which seems to concern Elsa right away and is brought to Slowik’s attention shortly after, so she is immediately seen as being outside of this typically sealed system. Fiennes and Taylor-Joy are outstanding scene partners as the chef calls Margot back to the kitchen for a series of terse conversations where they poke and prod at one another to gain understanding of their respective mindsets. Editor Christopher Tellefsen cuts these jagged-edge exchanges with a serrated knife, but when the night gets more twisted, he moves to a butcher’s knife, punctuated by Slowik’s loud claps to introduce courses, to savor the intensity of the moment.
Obviously, there are tantalizing (and occasionally ludicrous) plot developments that you’ll want to avoid knowing specifics about going into the movie, but suffice it to say, there are some delectable turns peppered throughout the film.
As much as this is a cheeky parable about the 1 percent and the people who serve them, The Menu is obviously a movie about the art of preparing food and all the emotions that come along with it.
There is a scene of catharsis that recalls last year’s transcendent Pig, a film also set in the high-end restaurant scene, but used in a way to gain understanding into how the characters live their lives once the meal is over. For most of its runtime, The Menu isn’t nearly that earnest, and its primary aim is to skewer its band of obscenely rich patrons. As such, it’s a more superficial effort and not as satisfying as a movie that has more interest in its characters. But like a plate of burger and fries from your favorite fast-food spot, The Menu will fill you up and put a smile on your face.
New movies coming to theaters this weekend
The Fabelmans, starring Michelle Williams and Paul Dano, is a coming-of-age drama from Steven Spielberg about a teenager growing up in post-World War II era Arizona who aspires to become a filmmaker soon after discovering a shattering family secret.
Strange World, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Dennis Quaid, is an animated sci-fi adventure following a family of explorers whose differences threaten to topple their latest and most crucial mission in the uncharted and treacherous land of Avalonia.
Devotion, starring Jonathan Majors and Glen Powell, is a biographical war drama which tells the true story of a pair of elite fighter pilots who became the Navy’s most celebrated wingmen during the Korean War.