When diners dock at the island that is home only to the exclusive restaurant Hawthorn, front of house general Elsa (Hong Chau) creates an uncomfortable moment for Chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) superfan Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), making it evident that his date Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) is a replacement for a ‘Miss Westervelt.’ But Slowik has something special in store than no one should be able to anticipate and Margot will be an unexpected ingredient in “The Menu.”
Laura's Review: B-
Writers Seth Reiss (TV's 'Late Night with Seth Meyers') and Will Tracy’s (HBO's 'Last Week with John Oliver') pitch black comedy is something of a cross between “The Freshman” and two Vincent Price movies, “Theater of Blood” and “House on Haunted Hill.” Once dinner guests are secured within Hawthorn where the kitchen staff appears to outnumber them, there is no way off the island, giving the film the immediate feel of a closed door murder mystery. The film’s pleasures are mostly surface level with its skewering of chefs composing dishes out of foams and natural recreations of ‘dirt’ and ‘snow’ and the entitled sycophants who ensure their fame while the underlying motivation behind Slowik’s psychopathy is undercooked.
After a tour of the island, which produces everything for Slowik’s kitchen and which also houses a staff dorm because, Elsa informs them, they work from 6 a.m. until 2 a.m. daily, diners are led into the restaurant space overlooking the Pacific’s vast horizon. Besides the barely-able-to-contain-himself Tyler, guests include the restaurant critic, Lillian Bloom (Janet McTeer), who ‘made’ Slowik and her editor Ted (Paul Adelstein); a washed-up movie star (John Leguizamo) hoping to pitch a TV travel show and the assistant, Felicity (Aimee Carrero), desperate to get away from him; inebriated tech bros, Bryce (Rob Yang), Soren (Arturo Castro) and Dave (Mark St. Cyr) who work for Doug Varick, the investor who owns the island and the restaurant; and Anne and Richard (Judith Light and Reed Birney), wealthy regulars celebrating an anniversary.
The film is chaptered with Slowik’s courses, I. being the Amuse Bouche. Tyler’s foreshadowing description of Slowik as a chef working on the edge of life and death leads Margot towards understanding Tyler’s obsession, yet she seems unimpressed with both the fussed over miniature portions and Slowik’s habit of loudly clapping his hands for their undivided attention. ‘Do not eat,’ he tells them. ‘Taste, savor, relish…’ When the second course turns out to be a breadless bread plate, a half dozen droplets of spreads offered, Margot is convinced Slowik is insulting them, upsetting Tyler who is beginning to find her an embarrassment. An increasingly ridiculous sommelier (Peter Grsoz) offers a pour ‘not just from a single vintage, but a single row of vines.’ But it is chef’s story of his third course, his own ‘Taco Tuesday,’ that signals something is seriously amiss.
The film’s best element is the head to head contest between Slowik and the rebellious Margot, one which the screenwriters end on a perfect note. The film’s secret weapon though is Chau, whose barely masked condescension epitomizes the relationship between her chef and those circumstance has forced him to serve. Hoult excels at obsequious behavior, McTeer’s self regard of her own expertise a critique on those grabbing the spotlight from what they’re presumably celebrating.
Director Mark Mylod’s ("What's Your Number?," HBO's 'Succession') pacing keeps escalating while "Mulholland Drive" cinematographer Peter Deming alternates ‘visiting’ individuals with contrasting kitchen staff against diners and using the outdoors as menacing space. But the production itself feels somewhat cheesy, production designer Ethan Tobman’s (“Room”) Hawthorn having green screen artificiality. Costume designer Amy Wescott helps flesh out character, Margot’s slinky dress contrasted with heeled combat boots, wine guzzling Anne’s dark dress helping her disappear from marital conversation.
“The Menu” is a class warfare satire that goes to some very dark places and yet remains fun. But it is also a movie whose main course is underdone while dessert is over worked.
Robin's Review: B
A group of self-proclaimed foodies descend on the private, isolated island of Chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Feinnes) as invitees to a truly unique and exclusive dining experience. Things are exactly what they appear to be, at first, until the celebrity chef announces his real intentions in “The Menu.”
Mark Mylod directs the script by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy and they tell a story of foodies, snobbery, creativity, disdain and getting what you deserve. The invitees are an eclectic collection of celebrity food critics, a bunch of money-power guys, a has been actor and his SO, a repeat-customer couple. Others, like Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), the uninvited escort to Tyler (Nicolas Holt), a young man who is full of himself and the aura of Chef Julian, are unwitting participants in chef’s ill-intended machinations.
While there are a bunch of characters – diners and restaurant staff – there are really three distinct players: Chef Slowik, Margot and Tyler. The chef and the escort represent evil and good, respectively, with Tyler, star-struck. In the middle. He is the food snob you disdain with his pretentious thinking that he actually knows something about food. He is but a pawn in Chef’s game.
The real pleasure/struggle are the opponents, the Chef and Margot (really Erin, but that is another story), as they lock horns over his disdain for his clueless clientele, while she disdains his pretentious menu and methods. The conflict between chef and patron allows the filmmakers show their own disdain for excess, snobbery and entitlement.
The food side of this foodie film will be familiar to any “normal” person sitting down to a swanky dinner and leaving not full. That pretention is front and center in the elaborate preparations for each colorful serving of non-food. One course, called The Mess, is aptly named and, when served, ramps up the tension building to deadly ends. Another, the no-bread plate, of course, lacks bread, causing a demand for bread among the patrons.
If you are in the mood of a darkly black comedy and an amusing foodie movie “The Menu” should suit the menu.
Searchlight opens "The Menu" in theaters on 11/18/22.