‘The Menu’ Serves Up Quite a Devious Dish

To me, “The Menu” is what Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” would be had it been set in a restaurant. While not as insanely crazy as “Midsommar,” this film is an insidiously clever black comedy which follows a group of people as they travel to a remote island (is there any other kind in a movie like this?) where an exclusive restaurant named Hawthorn, which is run by celebrity chef Julian Slowik, is located. But while the chef has prepared quite the cuisine for his selected guests, some sinister intentions are eventually unveiled for all to see which turns a special occasion into an inescapable nightmare. It all made me wonder if the screenplay was written by individuals who had been waiting tables for too long and been stiffed on tips one too many times. Or maybe it was conceived by a talented chef who was sick of people eating food and not tasting it. Or perhaps it was written by someone eager to illustrate the ultimate wet dream of Gordon Ramsay. Seriously, I can’t wait to hear what Gordon or even the Swedish Chef have to say about this.

“The Menu” starts with us being introduced to the guests who have been carefully invited to this especially special restaurant. Among them are a trio of drunk tech workers who have plenty of money to burn, an older couple who have visited Hawthorn several times previously, a celebrated restaurant critic and her devoted magazine editor, and a middle-age Hollywood movie star whose relationship with his assistant, who is by his side on this trip, is not entirely professional. From the outset, it looks like we have the typical cast of characters here, but this will be challenged as the filmmakers are quick to play with our expectations.

Also onboard is Tyler (played by Nicholas Hoult), a super-obsessed foodie who aspires to learn everything he can about cooking from Slowik. With him is his date, Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), whose love of food doesn’t come even close to his, and he is quick to admonish her for smoking as it will ruin her palette. When it comes to an exclusive restaurant like this, you want to spend more time tasting than eating, and this is echoed by Slowik once his guests are seated at their tables.

As everyone is led on a tour through the island by Slowik’s trusted right-hand person, Elsa (Hong Chau), they are told the ingredients for tonight’s meals come from the island and the nearby ocean. But once we get to see the employees’ sleeping quarters, which look similar to the beds those cult members slept on in “Midsommar,” this our first hint that things are going to go haywire as his fellow cooks act in a very unified way, and this made even clearer when Slowik claps his hands loudly to get everyone’s attention. Yes, that’s all he needs to do to bring his fellow cooks in line, and they are ever so quick to do so in the process.

Slowik tells everyone that the mission of this evening is not to eat, but to instead taste and savor the food given to them. But as the evening goes on, we see he is not out to congratulate his guests as he is to belittle them. This becomes apparent when he makes a deliberate mockery out of “Taco Tuesday” and presents his guests with tortillas which are as tasty as they are far too revealing. From there, the party becomes very dark and oppressive in a way only the Hawthorne employees could see coming.

Revealing more about “The Menu” might take away from your enjoyment, and I refuse to rob you of its many surprises. What I can tell you is that it is a lot like those movies which really gain my affection; it’s like an onion which invites you to peel back its many layers. And once you get past the final layer, you will find yourself wanting to watching this film again as putting all the pieces together will be irresistible. Moreover, this film held my attention from start to finish as I constantly wondered what direction the story would take next as we are taking from one food course to the next with little in the way of hesitation.

At its heart. Director Mark Mylod and screenwriters Seth Reiss and Will Tracy look to satirize the cruel divisions between the haves and have nots and of a society that never seems to have time for the finer things in life. Granted, I came out of “The Menu” thinking the satire could have been even deeper and sharper, but its is sharp enough to make for a gleefully twisted motion picture, and I am always looking for a good black comedy.

I was also struck by how good the actors are as they could have played their roles ever so broadly, but instead find nuances to where their characters are not mere cliches. Both Janet McTeer and Paul Adelstein make renowned restaurant critic Lillian Bloom and her magazine editor Ted into more than caricatures as their surface appearances can only hide the hideous takedowns they have written and published on restaurants past for so long. Rob Yang, Arturo Castro and Mark St. Cyr at first give us the kind of tech gurus who think they have it made to where money can seemingly buy everything, and each actor makes the ego-crushing their characters endure all the more brutal.

Nicholas Hoult quickly turns Tyler into a believably devoted foodie to where the reveal of his cooking style made me feel strangely sorry for him. And I can always count on John Leguizamo to give me a great time as he gives us the kind of washed-up actor here which he has had the misfortune of working with in real life, and Aimee Carrero has some choice moments as his long-time assistant Felicity who learns there is actually a downside to not having student loans to par off.

But there are some performances I really want to single out here, and among them is Ralph Fiennes’s. As celebrity chef Julian Slowik, I expected the actor who was the first to ever utter the word “fuck” in a James Bond movie (“No Time to Die” to be exact) to turn this character into some demented madman. But while Julian does have some demented plans for this evening, Fiennes makes him at times empathetic as he shows an emotional pain searing through which we can see in his eyes. This is especially apparent in his scenes Anna Taylor-Joy as her character of Margot is the one who was not actually invited to this particular dining experience, and this results in exhibiting some kind of hope that this dinner might have a positive outcome.

As for Taylor-Joy, best known for a Netflix miniseries I should have watched already, “The Queen’s Gambit,” she has the unique challenge of being the audience surrogate as, like her, we are desperately looking for a way out of this hellish situation which does not look to have a happy ending. She makes Margot an especially strong character even as fear threatens to engulf her every second. Watching her here, it’s no wonder she was picked to star in the upcoming “Furiosa” prequel.

I also really admired Hong Chau’s enigmatic performance as Chef Slowik’s right hand person, Elsa. From the screenplay, only so much is revealed about Elsa, and yet Chau turned into one of the most riveting characters to be found in “The Menu.” Watching Chau here makes me wonder what kind of backstory she created for Elsa as she dares you to see if you have the guts to peel back her many layers to reveal who she really is underneath her orderly appearance.

I really do hope audiences get to check out “The Menu” and that it doesn’t get lost in the midst of all the blockbusters and Oscar hopefuls which are about to invade multiplexes everywhere. Movies like these tend to get smothered too quickly as they have to deal with the latest superhero adventure, sequel or potential franchise installment. What’s wrong with enjoying movies which are standalone ones anyway?

Also, I cannot wait to recommend it to people like my dad and brother, both of whom love to cook. There’s no doubt they will be tickled to death by this one, and they will come out of it thankful that they are not running their own restaurants, something which is the furthest from their minds.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Whether Empty or Half Full, This ‘Glass’ is a Frustrating Misfire

glass movie poster

This is the first M. Night Shyamalan film I have looked forward to watching in over a decade. After the cinematic atrocity which was “The Last Airbender,” I had given up all hope of him returning to his former filmmaking glory. Then there was “After Earth” which did the impossible; it robbed Will Smith of his natural charisma, and it came with the pathetic tagline of “fear is a choice.” But now we have this highly anticipated 2019 film which combines characters from “Unbreakable” and “Split,” the latter being the first Shyamalan movie in ages to earn a fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes. As much as I try to leave my expectations at the door, this one piqued my interest ever since I got a look at its first trailer.

Well, the good news is that “Glass” is no “Last Airbender” as Shyamalan has managed to find his footing again as a filmmaker. The bad news is “The Sixth Sense” director still has yet to regain his mojo as a screenwriter. This long-awaited conclusion to his own superhero trilogy proves to be a disappointing misfire as the promises it looked to contain fall flat long before its misconceived climax which contains more endings than “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” and proves to be as frustrating as the one in “The Matrix Revolutions.”

Through a series of events, both David Dunn (Bruce Willis) and Kevin Wendell Crumb and his 23 different personalities which he refers to as The Horde (all of them played by James McAvoy) end up being imprisoned at a mental institution where Elijah Price/Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) has resided at for over a decade. The three are put under the care of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a psychiatrist whose specialty is working with patients whom she believes are suffering from delusions of grandeur. She wants to convince them they are not the superhuman beings they believe themselves to be, but we already know she will be in for one hell of a surprise.

“Glass” starts off interestingly enough as it reintroduces us to its three main characters with underplayed relish. Seeing David do battle with the most dangerous of Kevin’s personalities, The Beast, is fun as we see these comic book characters, or superheroes if you will, battle one another in a world more real to us than any in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It also doesn’t take too long for these two to be put under the same roof with Mr. Glass who looks to be in a vegetative state, but we know when looking into his twitchy eyes that he is waiting to prove his latest comic book theory for all the world to see. Seeing Jackson’s face reminded me of when Dr. Loomis confronted a young Michael Myers in “Halloween” as he stared listlessly out a window. Loomis says to him, “You fooled them, haven’t you Michael? But not me…”

But once “Glass” moves into the mental asylum, Shyamalan’s version of Arkham, the film begins to fall apart as these three characters cannot come together in a fully satisfying way, and things begin to drag as he underplays everything to where everyone needed an overdose of coffee or Red Bull. Granted, Shyamalan likes to underplay things instead of numbing us with endless explosions and characters yelling at one another for no special reason, but I would have loved it if he presented his stories in an overblown manner for once.

And yes, being an M. Night Shyamalan film, this one has the kind of twists he has been employing constantly since “The Sixth Sense.” However, the twists he has in store for us in “Glass” failed to blow my mind in any stimulating way, and they only served to make an already frustrating film even more frustrating as a result. Nothing comes together in a way which makes much sense, and it reminded me of how sick I get of Shyamalan’s need to stay one step ahead of the audience in an effort to outdo his previous work. This has been a big problem for me since “The Village,” and things aren’t getting much better.

By the time he reveals his twists in “Glass,” I had already lost much interest in the story as I found my mind wandering constantly to where thoughts of “Good Will Hunting” danced in my head. As much as I am determined to accept movies for what they are instead of what I want them to be, I kept thinking of the various ways this one could have been greatly improved. Seriously, it would have been far more interesting to see these three men trapped in a room together to where they are forced to deal with one another in a way they could not have expected. This could have been a superhero movie meets “The Breakfast Club” as these three could have discovered all the things they had in common to where they realize how all they have is each other.

As for the acting, it is mostly very good. It’s nice to see Bruce Willis reprising one of his best characters for the first time in years, and playing David Dunn allows the “Die Hard” actor to climb out of the VOD and direct to DVD muck he has been stuck in for far too long now (“Marauders” anyone?). James McAvoy has an actor’s dream role as he plays a character with multiple personalities, and he realizes each one with tremendous thought and precision to where I was in awe at what he pulled off here. As for Samuel L. Jackson, his role as Elijah/Mr. Glass remains one of his most unique as he portrays a “bad-ass motherfucker” who uses his mind instead of a gun or his fists to fulfill his needs.

The only performance I had issues with was Sarah Paulson’s. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a fantastic actress who has given many great performances and will give many more in the future, but watching her portray Dr. Ellie Staple was an extraordinarily strange experience. This is not altogether her fault as her character is ill-defined and not conceived in a particularly interesting way, and even when revelations about Ellie are made in the last act, it is not enough to save Paulson’s talents from being wasted. The actress spends most of her time staring at the three main characters or into the camera and looking ridiculously ethereal from start to finish, and it got to where I wanted to yell at the screen, “Hey, act normal! Stop looking so serene!”

For what it’s worth, “Glass” does represent a big step up for Shyamalan as a director. He still shows a solid skill for generating moments of high tension, and this is especially evident in the scene where a male nurse threatens to drop a flashlight onto Elijah’s fragile body. Even though the proceedings could have used a serious energy injection, Shyamalan still shows signs of a director’s mastery of suspense which I hope will serve him well in the future. There are only so many filmmakers who can fall down so far and get a second chance in Hollywood, and I am certain the box office will make clear he is here to stay. But as a writer, he still needs a helping hand as the screenplay has several plot holes you could drive a fleet of double decker busses through.

To watch “Glass” is to analyze it for what it could have been instead of what it is. Shyamalan has succeeded in creating a cinematic universe which Hollywood studios salivate over on a regular basis as the possibilities for sequels appeal to them greatly, but what ends up on the silver screen is inescapably underwhelming. I am happy to say it is no “Last Airbender” and infinitely more entertaining than “After Earth,” but Shyamalan still has yet to regain his former glory as a celebrated filmmaker in the eyes of audiences around the world.

* * out of * * * *