Diners who eat at the legendary Hawthorne are willing to pay top dollar for a multitude of reasons. First and foremost, the restaurant itself is located on a remote island, and every meal is sourced from the local flora and fauna. Secondly, the superstar chef who prepares every last bite uses his high cuisine not just to please the palate of his customers, but to tell them a story. From the harvesting methods to the cooking to the portions to the plating, not one iota of the experience is left to chance. Every variable is impeccably designed to tickle the tastebuds of the food connoisseur, while also providing them with literal food for thought.
Chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) implores his guests not to eat, but rather to taste. When he asks a question of his staff, they respond with a hearty “Yes, Chef” in perfect unison. There are no menu alterations. There are no unfinished meals. There are no poor people.
At thousands of dollars per plate, only those perched on the upper rungs of the socioeconomic ladder have a hope of ever eating at Hawthorne, and even these folks of such advanced financial caliber may have to wait years to get a seat at the table. This is why Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) wants his first Hawthorne experience to be perfect. He’s a huge foodie, as well as a Slowik super fan. He even admonishes his date, Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) for smoking a cigarette beforehand, indicating that doing so would dull her tastebuds to what is sure to be an incredible culinary experience.
The dining room is packed with a roster of characters, each from a different corner of high society. A washed-up actor and his publicist (John Leguizamo, Aimee Carrero), a food critic and her publisher (Janet McTeer, Paul Adelstein), a super rich pair of retirees (Judith Light, Reed Birney), and a trio of friends who could best be described as “finance bros” (Rob Yang, Arturo Castro, Mark St. Cyr).
As the diners begin their feast, their interactions give us an understanding of their varied, and often cringeworthy reasons for attending the meal, and as the contents of the meal take a more, shall we say, personal touch, they start to realize that Slowik’s menu has a much more sinister motivation than simple culinary pleasure.
To say more would be to betray the unceasingly clever script by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, which holds as many surprising twists and turns as it does satirical stabs at a diverse variety of deserving targets. Yes, this could be described as an “eat the rich” piece, but the silver-spoon-up-the-ass crowd is only one segment of the meal. Also under the broiler is “Yes, Chef” culture in all of its excesses, as well as that of fine dining at large and heck, even capitalism itself (how often has a brilliant artist lost their way to a paycheck?). Beyond all of this, it drives home the value of keeping it real, no matter the social cost.
Director Mark Mylod makes the most out of what is essentially a single location, making it feel alternately lavish and suffocating as the plot moves through its cruel, labyrinthine machinations. This is broken up by a very funny series of title cards, each showcasing a course, complete with lists of ingredients, each with a winking nod to the plot. Yes, title cards are often overused these days, but it works nicely for the structure of The Menu — it makes it feel like, well, a menu.
The humor is pitch black throughout, and often rather cruel, just as it should be. The cast of diners bring color to the humor, but it’s all anchored by Fiennes, who manages to make his Slowik alternately cocksure and damaged — even pitiable — which is essential in making his character more than just a villain. His approach to the humor isn’t dry so much as it’s seared on the outside to keep the juices from leaking out (yay, cooking puns). Our audience surrogates are Margot and Tyler, but the story is about Slowik, which would probably make him proud if he were a real life chef (in which case he would have forearm tattoos, which he does not).
Also notable is the extremely dry, absolutely no-nonsense host Elsa (Hong Chau) who acts as the human barrier between the exalted chef and his patrons. Hers is a full-bodied performance from which as much humor is drawn as suspense. For a minor movie, Chau gives one of the finer performances of the year. Very well done.
The Menu is a cleanly-staged thriller that cleverly utilizes familiar imagery to regularly surprise the viewer without feeling like a novelty. It’s got a delicious mean streak and enough satirical flavor to play its relative shagginess to its advantage. To borrow another bit of food parlance, I’d say it pairs well with something like Pig or The Belko Experiment. Overall, it might not be the finest piece of filet, but it’s a damn good cheeseburger, and sometimes that’s what hits the spot.
Directed by Mark Mylod
Written by Seth Reiss, Will Tracy
Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicholas Hoult, Ralph Fiennes, Hong Chau
Rated R, 106 minutes