My wife and I had the good fortune to eat at a restaurant awarded with five Mobil stars for several consecutive years. It is closed now, but we had scrimped and saved enough to dine there three times. To their credit, everybody at the establishment were courteous, and we were in turn. I’m sure they saw through us for the lower-middle-class suburbanites we were, but we were treated the same as any other guest. Each of those three visits was a beautiful experience I did not take for granted.
Among the guests to a special dinner at Ralph Fiennes’s exclusive island restaurant are a wealthy couple (Reed Birney and Judith Light) who had dined there eleven times previously but cannot recall a single dish they were served on any of those visits. There’s also a snooty food critic played by Janet McTeer. And there’s a trio of assholish guys from a popular TV food show (Rob Yang, Arturo Castro and Mark St. Cyr).
Even before we really meet those characters, we detect something is amiss. Amateur “foodie” (a term I hate, by the way) Nicholas Hoult gushes over the celebrity of these fellow gourmands as they get on the boat to the island. He conveys this information to Anya Taylor-Joy, who is his unimpressed date for the evening. He takes her to task for smoking: “Please don’t smoke. It will kill your palette.” Her response: “Then my palette will die happy.”
She will be the audience surrogate for what gradually unfolds as a surreal night of horror. We see her reaction to the boat leaving after the diners disembark. Then there’s her catching a glimpse back at the large, ominous door of the restaurant as it closes. Lastly, there is much hubbub concerning her replacing, without advance notice, the woman Hoult originally said he was bringing along.
The island is dedicated solely to the restaurant, where Fiennes is the chief chef. The entire staff live there in bunkers, and it is suggested they never leave. There is a creepy, cult-like devotion to their chef, as demonstrated in their military precision in the kitchen.
The dinner is intense from the moment it begins, with Fiennes clapping once at the start of each course. At the clap, his staff snaps to attention. He then gives an introductory speech, each of which will get progressively more disturbing as the courses proceed. In an amusing touch, text appears over the screen at some point in each course, listing the ingredients of the dish at hand. Probably the best laugh in the picture is in one of those moments, and I really wish I could say more about that without spoiling anything.
And that’s because I went into the film with a nagging suspicion how it would go. I would have bet pretty good money it was going to be some sort of hybrid of The Most Dangerous Game, The Hunt and Eating Raoul. It has elements of two of those pictures, and I still suspect part of a third, though that is pure conjecture on my part.
Instead, the plot went in many different directions I did not anticipate, before arriving at a climatic event that had secretly been in the cards all along. I think it’s safe to say the driver of the plot is a world-renown chef finding his passion for his art worn away by unappreciative patrons, slavish fanboy “foodies” and heartless critics. Other themes explored by the script include the wealthiest 1% and the #MeToo movement.
But don’t let those themes scare you off from seeing The Menu. This is a smart, witty and complex film which also has no shortage of laughs. In the end, I like how it left me thinking about many subjects it touched upon. I’m not sure I agree with what I believe to be the work’s point of view on some of these, but I’m glad it challenged me. I bet I’ll still be thinking about it the next time I go out to eat. With that in mind, always be considerate to those working at any restaurant and remember to tip appropriately. Remember, there’s worse things they can do to you than spit in your food.
Dir: Mark Mylod
Starring Ralph Fiennes, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicholas Hoult
Watched on blu-ray