With his cold, enigmatic handsomeness and piercing blue eyes, Ralph Fiennes was meant for villainy. His magnetic portrayal of the execrable Nazi butcher Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List first lured American audiences in, and he went on to play other notable baddies such as Hades in Clash of the Titans, Harry Potter’s Lord Voldemort, and the Tooth Fairy serial killer in Red Dragon. Even as the distinguished romantic lead, Fiennes sometimes seems pained to express joy, yet over the years, he’s loosened up enough to reveal glimpses of pleasure in playing oddballs and creeps. Who knew that decades into his career he would become one of today’s most entertaining actors, pulling off dark comedy (and even straight silliness) with total aplomb? (See In Bruges for some of his most devilishly funny moments.)
Fiennes was the ideal casting choice for The Menu’s vainglorious master chef—smiling isn’t exactly a familiar expression for him either. Chef Julian Slowik leads an almost robotically obedient team at the exclusive Hawthorn, located on a gorgeous small island somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Only the insatiable upper crust can afford to dine there, which doesn’t make the restaurant’s mission of culinary perfection so easily attainable. The chef lives in a private, off-limits cottage, while his entire staff sleeps in one orphanage-like room, neatly lined with immaculately made cots. Living and breathing only for him, they are his kids in a way—or, maybe more accurately, his disciples.
The 11 select people who have been invited to Hawthorn arrive at the film’s beginning, unaware that their boat ride is most likely one-way. The guest list includes a trio of deplorable tech bros (Rob Yang, Arturo Castro, and Mark St. Cyr), employees of Hawthorn’s chief investor who unironically toast to “work and money”; a beyond-pretentious food critic (Janet McTeer), who credits herself with Chef Slowik’s success, and her full-blown ass-kisser editor (Paul Adelstein); an obnoxious, washed-up movie star (John Leguizamo) and his discontented assistant (Aimee Carrero); a generic, aging fat-cat prick (Reed Birney) and his wife (Judith Light), who have visited Hawthorn many times before without properly savoring the experience; and dull-as-dishwater foodie know-it-all Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) and his escort, Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy). They no doubt deserve whatever is about to be served up to them, so while it’s enjoyable to watch them realize they are in harm’s way, there’s little tension in the material. The problem with any films skewering a reprehensible breed of people (here, the ultra-rich and entitled)—or cultural landscape (the ultimate food snobbery)—is that they offer no receptacles for sympathy, no one to root for. You know versions of these people, and you just want them to shut the fuck up already.
All of them except maybe for Tyler’s last-minute date replacement. His intended companion not so shockingly dumped him, and the seemingly down-to-earth Margot is now his plus-one. Her presence immediately throws Hawthorn’s impeccable order out of whack. She is the one guest the staff didn’t expect, and this somehow interferes with their meal presentation—which, like a piece of deranged performance art, or “stagecraft” as the food critic optimistically suggests, gets more gruesome, and ridiculous, as the courses move along (they provide the “chapters” of the film). The chef himself takes an immediate genuine interest in her—much to the envy of her dud of a date, who would no doubt sacrifice his firstborn child for this kind of attention from his idol—and not just because she’s the only one not super-impressed by his delectable offerings. It seems she might not belong with this group of deplorables, which doesn’t factor into his diabolical plans for the evening. It is debatable, though, even as more is revealed about her identity, how cool or appealing Taylor-Joy’s character actually is.
The fast-moving action of The Menu predominantly takes place inside the modern restaurant, yet it rarely feels suffocating. Hawthorn, with its expansive ocean views across one side opposite the open kitchen, and fires burning along a side wall, has been created by production designer Ethan Tobman as painstakingly as Chef Slowik’s dishes. The course selection for the evening culminates in the ultimate dessert—a massively conceived play on a beloved American treat the chef considers “a fucking monstrosity.” It’s a grand finale for a film that dexterously balances cutting comedy with some oozy horror. And even if it’s more transparently schematic than Peter Strickland’s Flux Gourmet and David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future—two recent films also exploring the odd spectacle of performance art and the deeper meanings of food—a year when we are fed all three is a nourishing one indeed.
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