‘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 * * * *