Cinematic Releases: The Delectable Darkness of "The Menu" - Reviewed


Courtesy: Searchlight Pictures

Elite food critics, Hollywood celebrities, business moguls, finance bros, and obsessive foodies gather for an outlandishly-priced, four-and-a-half-hour curated dining experience at one of the most celebrated, exclusive, hard-to-get-into fine-dining restaurants in the world. The one unpretentious middle-class diner in the room - the obsessive foodie's less-than-enthusiastic date - looks on at the whole thing with detached bemusement and disdain for the absurd display of self-indulgent, ego-stroking excess that it is. But those feelings are soon joined by a gnawing sense of unease as it becomes clear to her that there is something wrong with this restaurant, and something sinister about this chef... Such is the place setting for The Menu, a savagely dark social satire which uses its elitist restaurant setting and gourmet food motifs as a microcosm of the toxic relationships between art and commerce, money and class structure, and service-industry workers versus those who are waited on, which add up to form a gangrenous rot at the heart of American society. It is an uneasy film that resists simple answers, structured like the Chef's menu itself, in which each course brings new revelations and changes in perspective. Like his restaurant, it is coldly beautiful; alienating but alluring. Like his dishes, deliciously funny and nasty moments are presented in unexpected ways that make you chew on them to process their meaning. The Menu is, as far as I'm concerned, one of the best films of the year; a feast which left me thinking about it long afterwards, even as it very deliberately leaves its customers a bit queasy.

Courtesy: Searchlight Pictures

The film joins a very specific pantheon of social satire/commentary films which I absolutely adore, although it may send other types of viewers running. Its use of a restaurant as a microcosm of a fracturing society, and the division of the film into courses, recalls The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. Its wickedly bitter class satire and unfolding puzzle structure recalls Parasite. How dark and savage the whole thing feels while simultaneously being absolutely beautiful in its craft recalls both. This is a stunningly shot film, with Peter Deming's cinematography being as precise and opulent as the dishes being served, while keeping a very deliberate icy emotional distance. The score, by Hereditary's Colin Stetson, is beautiful in its minimalism, and really powers the film's tone of unease. It is a tightly controlled film, executed with a very sure hand by Mark Mylod, the primary director behind Succession.

The film is anchored by a powerhouse cast, who know exactly how to work with the story's uneasy tone and often-unclear character motives. Ralph Fiennes, always excellent in sinister roles, is at the top of his game as the chef, giving a performance that is at times darkly funny, at times tragic and melancholy, at times downright frightening, but always with something quietly unhinged about it. Nicholas Hoult is hilarious as an extreme portrayal of the type of obsessive internet nerd about any hobby (in this case, gourmet cuisine) who takes on a very unhealthy parasocial relationship with his celebrity idol. John Leguizamo does some fantastic, self-deprecating work playing basically a fictionalized version of John Leguizamo, and Janet McTeer is just the right amount of over-the-top as the wildly pompous food critic. Hong Chau steals all of her scenes as the restaurant's maĆ®tre d', always cheerfully just a moment away from snapping, and also gets one of the movie's best lines to a rude customer - "you will eat less than you want, but more than you deserve." At the center of it all is the always-brilliant Anya Taylor-Joy, as the one passably-normal person in the whole nightmare, giving a performance that begins with a lot of interiority, reacting to the surreal situation around her, and becoming increasingly forceful as the film goes on.

Courtesy: Searchlight Pictures

All of that is what makes The Menu a delicious (though bitter) cinematic meal, but the real power of the film is in its multi-layered themes, and how much they give you to keep chewing on afterwards. There is a lot going on thematically in this film, and despite how angry and confrontational it can be it is never didactic, and it asks the audience to think about things rather than giving easy or obvious answers. It is a movie with a lot to say about class, both in the sense of rich versus poor or middle-class, and in the sense of those who serve and those who are served; the restaurant is a service-industry nightmare taken to the extreme. There is also a lot being said about the uneasy, toxic relationship between art and commerce, and how the money that is needed to keep art alive is also art's worst enemy. It has things to say about obsessive fandom, and those who base their lives around observing and critiquing art rather than partaking in it, and of course it has a lot to say, both loving and scathing, about gourmet food. Like one of the chef's courses with a rich and complicated flavor palette, which he instructs his diners to savor rather than eat, there is a lot going on here, and it is very well-balanced, and will stay on your tongue long after you get up from the table.

With how dark, bitter, and confrontational it is, The Menu won't be for all tastes, but those with the right palette will savor it. It definitely belongs on the short list of the year's best movies so far. Book a reservation.


- Christopher S. Jordan

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