‘The Menu’ is a deliciously wicked food-world satire

‘The Menu’ is a deliciously wicked food-world satire

Ralph Fiennes and Anya Taylor-Joy go knives out at the restaurant from hell.

Leah Greenblatt

If we cannot eat the rich, at least we can enjoy their suffering on screen with a side of fermented sea lettuce and light schaudenfraude in The Menu, a glossy, skewering satire in theaters this Friday. (That it comes from a director who helmed more than a dozen episodes of Succession feels, at the least, apropos.)

Anyone who has ever casually wandered through a high-end farmers’ market or been cornered by that guy at a cocktail party who wants to talk about his yeasts knows the heights of obsessive fervor and small-batch self-regard that the mere act of putting food in your body engenders among a certain subset of people with enough time and money to call themselves gourmands. For Tyler (The Great‘s Nicholas Hoult), it seems to comprise his entire personality: Whatever he does for a living — it’s never said, though it must be lucrative — his interests begin and end with the dogged pursuit of elevated eating; if you cook it (or confit it, or turn it into a gelé), he will come. 

THE MENU

Credit: Eric Zachanowich/Searchlight Pictures

That’s why he’s one of a dozen people boarding a boat to a small island to have dinner at Hawthorne, a modernist temple of molecular gastronomy overseen by a celebrated chef named Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), and paying $1,250 per head for the privilege. “What, are we eating a Rolex?” Tyler’s date Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) scoffs, incredulous — though this crowd probably would, as long as it were served sous-vide. Among the guests, there’s a washed-up movie star (John Leguizamo) and his fed-up assistant (Aimee Carrero), a starchy older couple (Reed Birney and Judith Light) who’ve already done this many times before, a vaunted critic (Ozark‘s Janet McTeer) and her toadying editor (Paul Adelstein), and a trio of braying finance bros (Rob Yang, Arturo Castro, and Mark St. Cyr). If anyone doesn’t belong there it’s Margot, and Julian, his unblinking gaze like an X-ray, seems to know it. 

On arrival, the bespokeness of the Hawthorne experience does not disappoint. The windswept island is raw but beautiful, an entire ecosystem devoted to Julian’s meticulous dishes; in the distance, a diligent staffer scurries, harvesting scallops fresh from the bay. But Elsa (Watchmen‘s Hong Chau), the restaurant’s unflappable hostess, seems to seethe beneath her faultless civility, and the kitchen staff treat Julian more like a cult leader than a man who makes entrées out of “charred milk lace” for millionaires. It doesn’t take many courses — an opulent parade of breadless bread plates, elaborately tweezered proteins, and unknowable foams — for the bloody unraveling to begin.

The script, by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, has no shortage of broad targets on its dartboard; when have the follies of the rich and feckless not been easy fodder for black comedy? Hoult is very good at playing a priggish foodie fanboy, though if his character were a dish, it would doubtless be dismissed by Julian as one-note; all acid, no umami. Light, as a tremulous Stepford wife watching her world unravel with each glass of natural wine, does an enormous amount of acting with very few lines, and McTeer plays her imperious critic with casual, note-perfect hauteur. Taylor-Joy brings a cagey survivalism to Margot, a girl who gives the sense she’s had to get herself out of ugly scenarios many times before, and the notes Chau hits are delicious, a symphony of passive-aggressive bitchery.

It’s Fiennes, though, who most makes a feast of his role. The Menu‘s swishy, gleeful satire is not his ordinary milieu, but he’s too good an actor not to turn Julian into a far better monster than we probably deserve, careening between sniffy pique, red-hot malevolence, and small, strange pockets of tenderness. The movie loses some momentum in the final third, and tends to over-egg its caricatures of all these platinum-card fools and clueless masters of the universe. But its appetite for destruction is also too much fun in the end to refuse: a giddy little amuse bouche for the apocalypse to come. Grade: B

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