Disturbingly delicious: Reviewing ‘The Menu’

Pruett Norris, Reporter

Anya Taylor-Joy sits at the head of the table from the outset of her newest film, foodie thriller “The Menu.” She commands the screen as Margot, a young woman invited by her date, played by Nicholas Hoult, to a private island that’s home to Hawthorne, a high-end restaurant ruled with an iron kitchen knife by its head chef, Ralph Fiennes, in a deliciously dark performance. Taylor-Joy’s character is whisked along on an evening of high food snobbery: multiple courses, minimal ingredients, and the likes of critics, movie stars and the uber-rich as tablemates. A film which begins as a dark comedy about the food industry and the ways the wealthy spend their money –– a seat at Fiennes’ restaurant costs $1,250 –– becomes more and more thrilling as the meal unfolds.

2022 has been a year chock-full of class commentary in cinema. From satirizing rich Gen-Zers in “Bodies Bodies Bodies” to ship-wrecking them in “Triangle of Sadness,” the movies seem to be full of questions about who’s cutting whose checks. “The Menu,” instead, starts cutting cheeks. Segmented by each course on Fiennes’ menu, the movie ups its appetite for cruelty with every plate brought out to Margot and Hawthorne’s other guests. Ironically, these dishes’ presentation happens to be where much of the comedy comes from too.

According to an interview with The Thrillist, production designer Ethan Tobman collaborated with not only real-life chef Dominique Crenn to create the film’s dishes, but also David Gelb, creator of the Netflix cooking show “Chef’s Table,” to shoot them. Each course is unveiled with the flourish of a celebrity chef’s cooking and the lushness of a master photographer’s eye, completed by zooms, mist and special title cards with each meal’s name and ingredients. 

Tobman’s approach works in two ways. First, his collaborators lend credibility to the premise. Crenn is the head chef at San Francisco restaurant Atelier Crenn, which is an island-bound, reservation-only, luxury-experience restaurant, quite similar to Fiennes’ in the film. Second, each course’s title card creates a hilarious juxtaposition when the names of the meal and its ingredients become increasingly crass while the food remains beautifully appetizing. Even when its tension is at its highest, “The Menu” is never too full of itself to leave room for dessert, in this case a wicked sense of humor.

The film is like a good waiter: fast-paced, friendly and attentive until the end. It wastes no time at all introducing the central players and their driving conflict. Margot is a captivating protagonist, and Taylor-Joy gives her an intelligence and suspicion that make her navigation of Hawthorne and its diners believable. Take, for instance, her dynamic with Hoult, her obnoxious date. The funniest parts of the movie see his foodie sensibilities meshing poorly with Margot’s practical personality, and the escalating tension between them when Fiennes, whom Hoult’s character idolizes, devotes his attention toward Margot is amusingly toxic. Margot is incredulous at Hoult’s behavior, and turns what could be alarming into a wholly relatable experience: a really bad date. It’s almost too easy to empathize with Margot as she deals with the whining and wining wealthy around her. 

However, the film saves its secret ingredient in Fiennes. Although despicable, Fiennes’ portrayal of the chef has more layers than an upscale layer cake. Before each course begins, he gives an elaborate, pseudo-intellectual speech about the follies of man and the wonders of food. These speeches become Fiennes’ acting showcase. Each is more unhinged and deranged than the last, and the thunderous handclap he makes before each one is a creative and chilling piece of sound design. The only thing that rivals the rhetoric of Fiennes’ chef are his meals. One particularly disturbing dish is even titled The Folly of Man.

While the horrible things Fiennes has cooked up for his guests are indefensible, there is a sad kernel of truth in the ideas he’s preaching that elevates his performance above sheer villainy and the film above pure thrills.

A dark sense of humor and searing commentary are baked into “The Menu.” Audiences with a dietary restriction for strong language and violence should be advised to skip this one. However, if any prospective diners can stomach it, this is one to check out. At the end of the meal, its clear as the credits roll that this is a film that loves the menu it’s prepared.

 

Rating: 4/5 Yosefs