Producers: Adam McKay, Betsy Koch and Will Ferrell Director: Mark Mylod Screenplay: Seth Reiss and Will Tracy Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicholas Hoult, Hong Chau, Janet McTeer, Reed Birney, Judith Light, John Leguizamo, Paul Adelstein, Aimee Carrero, Arturo Castro, Rob Yang, Mark St. Cyr, Rebecca Koon, Christina Brucato, Adam Aalderks, Matthew Cornwell and Peter Grosz Distributor: Searchlight Pictures
Mark Mylod, returning to feature filmmaking after a decade toiling successfully in cable television (“Shameless,” “Game of Thrones,” “Succession”), takes a darkly humorous route with a black comedy that skewers the capitalist class divide through the prism of pretentious haute cuisine. The meal served up in “The Menu” has many courses, but the basic dish is always the revenge of the have-nots against those who have entirely too much—or more precisely of those who serve against their self-styled masters.
The setting is a very tony restaurant called Hawthorn, situated on an isolated island in the Pacific Northwest. Well-heeled customers pay $1250 apiece to savor the tasting menu prepared by imperious chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), who presides over his obedient kitchen staff with the demeanor of a Prussian general. The ingredients of each course are produced locally, and Slowik introduces them with a brutal hand clap and a description of the dish he has prepared for his salivating guests.
Tonight the attendees are a disparate group, met at the dock and escorted to the restaurant by Slowik’s coolly efficient captain Elsa (Hong Chau). One couple are regulars returning for a twelfth time, hardened businessman Richard Liebbrandt (Reed Birney) and his wife Anne (Judith Light). Another is haughty, powerful food critic Lillian Bloom (Janet McTeer) and her fawning editor Ted (Paul Adelstein). George Diaz (John Leguizamo), an over-the-hill actor hoping to interest Slowik in a reality food show to resurrect his career, is accompanied by his assistant Felicity (Aimee Carrero), who’s planning to sever ties with her boss. One table is occupied by a trio of arrogant, boorish techies—Soren (Arturo Castro), Bryce (Rob Yang) and Dave (Mark St. Cyr)—who work for the wealthy mogul who’s been the financial “angel” behind Hawthorn. There’s a final couple: Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), an obsessive fan of Slowik’s, and Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy). A table toward the back has a single diner, alcoholic Linda (Rebecca Koon), eventually identified as Julian’s mother.
Margot is the odd person out among the customers, an escort hired by Tyler after his original date had bowed out. She becomes the focus of Slowik’s attention, an out-of-place addition to a group he had, it becomes clear, carefully chosen. (One is left wondering who Tyler’s original date was.) By sheer coincidence Richard turns out to have been a former client of Margot’s—a fact which, when revealed, causes further consternation when the businessman tries to leave with his wife and is violently prevented from doing so.
Scripters Seth Reiss and Will Tracy add embellishments to provide some variety to the plot. In addition to the conversations between Slowik and Margot, there are clues she discovers in his Spartan cabin about his humble origins. Slowik’s “angel” is introduced at some remove for a particularly gruesome act of vengeance. At one point Slowik gives the male diners the opportunity to escape, which permits some momentary, if inconclusive action. At another Margot is able to get out a radio message to the Coast Guard, leading to the arrival of a cop (Matthew Cornwell) who could save the guests.
But the basic scenario involves the presentation of Slowik’s specially-prepared courses, which straddle the line between simply absurd (a breadless bread tray) and deliberately humiliating. Chef’s running commentary about them, accompanied by cheeky captions enumerating their ingredients, is an added bonus. (The best is certainly the last, a denunciation of S’mores as a gastronomic monstrosity.) These are occasionally interrupted by bouts of violence—Richard’s brutalization, the sudden end of one of Julian’s sous-chefs (Adam Aalderks)—as Lillian and Tyler learnedly debate whether they’re real or part of chef’s show. A chipper sommelier (Peter Grosz) periodically stops by to dispense rare wines.
Where “The Menu” stumbles is in Slowik’s rationale behind his choice of guests. On can understand the obnoxious techies and the career-destroying food critic. A movie reviewer can especially appreciate his choice of Diaz. One can imagine Tyler and the Liebbrandt’s inclusion as objects of personal pique. But surely there are others who would have been more suitable targets of the chef’s ire. But such considerations are elbowed away by the focus on whether Margot will suffer the same grisly fate as the others or become the traditional last girl standing.
And on Fiennes’ fierce performance as the intimidating chef. Radiating a sinister charm to accompany his preening pomposity, the actor adds to his ever-increasing gallery of imposing performances depicting varying shades of villainy (and, in some cases, victimhood). He’s a magnetic presence throughout. The rest of the cast adds solid support, with Hoult standing out as the nervous, twitchy Tyler and Taylor-Joy as the sole diner unwilling to bow before Slowik’s show of grandiosity. Chau makes Elsa almost as dominating as her boss, though her final scene with Taylor-Joy doesn’t really make much sense except as an added jolt of action.
But that’s the case with “The Menu” as a whole. Buoyed by Fiennes’ ferocious turn and an elegant look—courtesy of production designer Ethan Tobman, costumer Amy Westcott and cinematographer Peter Deming, highlighted by Christopher Tellefsen’s sharp editing and accompanied by Colin Stetson’s imaginative score—it holds one’s attention to the end. But when you parse it afterward, you may conclude that it’s not as satisfying as it might have been, with an underlying commentary differing little from the socio-economic message Mike White and Miguel Arteta delivered more simply and effectively in another food-based satire, “Beatriz at Dinner.”
So “The Menu” has some succulent ingredients but in the end, like so many haute cuisine servings, it leaves you hungry for something more substantial.