Sunday, November 20, 2022

The Menu: A Review



"You are what you eat" the saying goes. What if, however, you are how you eat? The Menu is not the takedown of the elite that it appears to aspire to be, but with some good performances, it entertains even if it bites off more than it can chew.

As a side note, I do not know why 2022 has produced more than a few "takedowns of the elite" films, but there it is.

Hawthorn is an exclusive restaurant, so exclusive it is on a remote island and the experience is $1,250 per person with a twelve-person limit. Foodie Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) is beyond giddy with glee at being able to go. His date, Margo (Anya Taylor-Joy) is not. She finds everything about Hawthorn bizarre to idiotic and cannot understand why anyone is excited, let alone so extravagant over something as simple as food.

The various guests at this latest dinner are among the rich and powerful. There's Richard and Anne (Reed Birney and Judith Light), who have dined repeated at Hawthorn. There's George Diaz aka Movie Star (John Leguizamo) and his personal assistant Felicity (Aimee Carrero). We also have billionaire bros Bryce, Soren and Dave (Rob Yang, Arturo Castro and Mark St. Cyr). Finally, we have food critic Lillian Bloom (Janet McTeer) and her editor, Ted (Paul Adelstein). Lillian "discovered" Chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes).

"Chef" as he is called by all, rules his kitchen and island with a firm hand. Aided by his assistant Elsa (Hong Chau), he has prepared a seven-course meal for his guests. Everything has been immaculately planned, except for Margo. Tyler was originally meant to bring another guest but substituted Margo almost at the last minute without informing Chef, Elsa or anyone at Hawthorn.

This will have devastating consequences for everyone, as Chef has decided that this will be a literal last supper for everyone, staff and diners alike. As the dinner continues, it will be difficult if not impossible for anyone to survive this dinner from Hell, though Margo may have a few surprises up her sleeve.

The Menu can be seen as allegory or can be seen at the surface level.  If we go by the latter, The Menu reminded me of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. Like in Dame Agatha's novel, screenwriters Seth Reiss and Will Tracy's screenplay has a group of disparate figures trapped on a remote island by a madman who has decided to bring about justice as he sees it. 

The most open comparison between And Then There Were None and The Menu is when we begin the Third Course (I counted seven courses and S'mores for dessert, with almost all courses appearing as on-screen text). Here, as Chef recounts a strange mix of his abused past and Taco Tuesdays, he presents his diners with tortillas that have images of various acts and crimes on them. They range from the most innocuous (such as Tyler's photographing of the dishes despite firm instructions not to) to the openly criminal (the billionaire bros' offshore accounts).  

Compacting the action to one night, The Menu builds its mystery slowly. That is one of the film's drawbacks. Despite its surprisingly short 106-minute running time, The Menu feels longer. It may be due to how most people nowadays have a one-course meal (not counting buffets). As my mind went to And Then There Were None, I expected to see them die one at a time. That expectation is on me but given how The Menu and the Christie novel share similarities, I could not help thinking that. 

Some things, such as how Chef managed to get his cult-like kitchen staff to participate in this Jonestown-like scenario, are never fully explained. Other elements, such as how Chef managed to get one particular diner to not be there at the fiery conclusion, are not believable to me.

However, The Menu has some strong positives through the performances. I would put Nicholas Hoult at the top of them as the elitist fanboy who ultimately can only appreciate but never create himself. His Tyler is what makes The Menu a strong black comedy. Tyler is so obsessed about the food and being in the presence of Chef that he more effectively spoofs fanboys better than most fanboys accidentally spoof themselves. He is delightful oblivious to anything outside his plate: amidst the growing chaos and even suicide that takes place in front of everyone, there is Tyler, happily eating and refusing to attempt an escape.

Taylor-Joy too excels as Margo, the sole sane voice among the culinary intelligentsia and hangers-on. She uses her working girl smarts to find a solution out of this predicament. Granted, this is aided by having her go to Chef's home (where no one is allowed in), but this is what needed to happen to move the plot forward, so I can excuse it. Her general disinterest in the posh surroundings, her lack of pretention and everyday manner put her at odds with the insanity around her.

Fiennes does strong work as Chef, this seemingly placid man who has gone thoroughly bonkers. Only once does he rant, and that involves his financial backer or "angel" appearing in a way. It does stretch the imagination that Fiennes could convince anyone he is from Iowa, however. In his calm but haughty manner, his generally soft-spoken delivery and controlled lunacy, Fiennes gave an excellent performance.

Similarly strong performances came from Chau as the devoted assistant who may be just as looney as her boss and McTeer as the perpetually snobbish food critic. I would say that The Menu does not have a bad performance in the film, a credit to director Mark Mylod.

The Menu also has a strong, sparse score by Colin Stetson and production design. The film evokes this insular world, where mayhem blends with a nice aperitif. 

The Menu is perhaps not as sharp and witty as it aims to be, but it is a nice snack to munch on. 


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