I managed a wine store for almost fifteen years, and I affectionately remember some of the pretentious wine reviews that hung from the shelves. My favorite was attached to a Spanish red, which boasted it had a “firm international structure.” Now, if anybody anywhere knows what in the holy honey-baked hell that means, I would welcome the enlightenment. Of course, wine snobs would scan that blurb, nod approvingly, and buy the bottle.
As a satire, The Menu skewers both the highfalutin goofball who crank out such hollow gibberish, and the status-seeking consumers who gain validation from living by it. While the film targets the restaurant scene, the same haughty sense of entitlement applies. The folks behind The Menu clearly have contempt for both sides of the transaction, making unclear what the goal of all this satire is, if there is one.
We’ll circle back to that. First, let’s dissect the film’s sour, salty flavor palate. The film begins with a group of strangers boarding a ferry. They’re straight from the Gilligan’s Island template, only uglier in soul: There’s the movie star (John Leguizamo), the millionaire (Reed Birney) and his wife (Judith Light), the elitist food critic (Janet McTeer) could be the professor, while Nicolas Hoult’s food-geek stands in for Gilligan. The latter is accompanied by Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), a last minute date.
Aboard this tiny ship, the passengers sail for a remote island. There, they will grace The Hawthorne, one of the finest restaurants in the world. Head Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) has prepared a multi-course experience—a narrative expressed through exotic and eccentric dishes. What his guests don’t realize is that Slowik has also infused this lavish meal with a dose with Rod Serling’s allegorical horror: These patrons are awful people, and they’re about to pay for it.
I won’t give much more away, except to say what follows is a snooty, overwrought bloodbath. The Menu isn’t for the squeamish. Slowik runs his restaurant with the urbane, antiseptic psychosis of a Gestapo Kommandant, and things get nasty real quick. This movie is a kick for anyone who can snap into its groove of fiendishly macabre humor. All others beware.
That groove gets deepened by a host of sharp performances. As Slowik, Fiennes is cheerfully tyrannical and thoroughly unhinged. His restaurant has the feel of a beautiful eatery at Jonestown, where the line for artisan Kool-Aid runs around the block. Hoult is also excellent as the neurotic foodie who dives into the craziness with the precision of Michael Phelps. And, as always, Taylor-Joy does great work as the grounded, sardonic foil for Slowik’s megalomaniacal murder spree. She’s unimpressed with his fragile petulance, and it slowly drives him nuts.
Attention also must be paid to the tertiary characters. Leguizamo is well-cast as the disgraced comedian who coasts from one bad movie to another. Think Eddie Murphy somewhere between Pluto Nash and Meet Dave. Also, Hong Chau is chillingly effective as Slowik’s manager/minister of death. Her curt smile is colder than permafrost.
As much as I enjoyed The Menu, I’m not sure how to rate it. Yes, it’s devilishly funny, and I laughed out loud a few times. At the same time, I’m very familiar with the rancid, snobbery that can sometimes afflict the wine industry, and the restaurant business is strikingly similar. So, the jokes hit home for me. The Menu’s satire is so surgical in its precision, I honestly don’t know how funny it will be to everyone. Some viewers might find this film as snobby as the subjects it attempts to mock. The result is a polarizing dish, both brilliant and weird in its presentation. For my part, I enjoyed it a great deal. The Menu is devilishly clever and wickedly violent. Best of all: It has a firm, international structure.
107 min. R. HBOMax.