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Food for thought – ‘The Menu’ Featured

November 21, 2022
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There has always been a tendency to fetishize high-end experiences, but the proliferation of social media has only exacerbated that fact. Instead of just making the people in your direct circle jealous, you can become the envy of legions of strangers as well.

Take fine dining, for instance. Foodies have long been among us, but now, they can force themselves into your line of sight by way of Instagram photos. It’s not enough to enjoy a meal – you have to make sure that other people know that you’re enjoying that meal … and they’re not.

But what happens when an ideological tipping point is reached?

In “The Menu,” directed by Mark Mylod from a script by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, we get a look at the next evolution in fine dining. A smart thriller with a satiric edge and a deceptively wicked sense of humor, it tells the tale of what happens when – apologies in advance – the tables are turned.

Playing out in chapters fashioned after courses, “The Menu” deconstructs the classist underpinnings inherent to the sort of high-concept, high-priced dining experiences that so many aspire to celebrate. It’s a slow burn build into chaos, a film whose seeming straightforwardness gradually evaporates as the proceedings play out. And by the time dessert is served, well … let’s just say you’ve never had a meal quite like this one.

Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) is waiting on a dock with Tyler (Nicholas Hoult). The two of them are preparing to go to one of the most exclusive restaurants in the world, though Margot’s perhaps not as enthusiastic as her companion. They are among a mere handful who will be dining this evening – just a dozen, all told.

The restaurant is called Hawthorne, named after the small island on which it sits. The chef is Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), an absolute supernova of the culinary world, one of the most famed and acclaimed chefs out there. The isolation of the location means that everyone who works there – back of house, front of house, you name it – also lives there, devoted single-mindedly to the chef’s vision.

Margot and Tyler are joined at their seating by a fascinating assortment of people. There’s the trio of tech bros – Bryce (Rob Yang), Soren (Arturo Castro) and Dave (Mark St. Cyr) – looking to show off their nouveau riches. There’s faded movie star George (John Leguizamo) and his assistant Felicity (Aimee Carrero), as well as Hawthorne returnees Richard (Reed Birney) and Anne (Judith Light). In addition, we have renowned food critic Lillian (Janet McTeer) and her editor Ted (Paul Adelstein).

But tonight’s menu is even more exclusive than what has been served in the past. It is in many ways Chef Slowik’s masterpiece, a bill of fare whose unspooling narrative becomes ever more intense with each passing course. It isn’t long before the patrons realize that whatever experience it was they thought they were buying, what they’re getting is something much deeper. Deeper … and darker.

The wild card is Margot, whose presence doesn’t quite gel with the rest of the patrons. More than anyone there, she exists at the nexus of two worlds – those who serve and those who are served. And as the evening progresses, the lines begin to blur.

If that all sounds vague, that’s by design. “The Menu” is a film that greatly benefits from relatively little foreknowledge. If you’ve seen the trailers, you can probably work out some of what I’ve omitted, but the truth is that even those previews are somewhat deceptive. In truth, I didn’t really know what kind of movie I was getting when I sat down. So much the better for me.

I’m a big fan of films that defy easy categorization. There are a lot of terms that one could use to describe this movie’s genre – there are elements of thriller and horror, of black comedy and social satire … the list goes on. And yet, like a slow-simmering stew bubbling away over a low flame, these disparate ingredients gradually meld together into something that is both of and beyond its fundamental components.

And it is delicious.

“The Menu” is both a briskly-paced thriller and a condemnation of class divides. It is at times funny, at others bleak. It is a film with something to say, yet never feels fully beholden to that message.

It is also a very stylish movie, using the titular menu’s varying courses as chapter headings to guide us through the experience of the film. It is cleanly, deliberately paced, striking an engaging tonal balance throughout. When it turns – and boy does it ever turn – the viewer is left with little choice but to hang on and see what happens next.

The performances are excellent. Anya Taylor-Joy leads the way, weaponizing her resting naïve face in a manner that builds on the sorts of work she’s done in the past. Fiennes is outstanding as Chef Slowik, a cauldron of self-important ego and resentment that bubbles away throughout. So much of what he does is restrained and internal, making the more abrupt moments all the more effective. They’re the headliners, but honestly, everyone involved is very good. The restaurant patrons are uniformly strong - shoutout to Leguizamo, Hoult and McTeer, but they really are all good – as well as the restaurant staff, with their lockstep “Yes, Chef” energy; of particular note is Hong Chau, who is outstanding as front-of-house manager Elsa.

“The Menu” is a provocative and engaging film, one that has plenty of wicked fun with the ideas it explores. It is well-crafted and well-written, powered by some great performances. No matter what your usual order, you’ll find something to like – as in all the very best restaurants, everything is good here.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 21 November 2022 16:31

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