Most of us know a self-proclaimed “foodie” who is not just excited about food, preparation, authenticity, and ingredients but is also impressed with their own knowledge and quick to share their insights with everyone else. We say “this is a nice wine” but they say “the tartness of the grapes is a giveaway that it was a late crop grown in a shady spot, and the mouthfeel and legs denote it being from this vintner.” These folk can be boors and if they happen to be planning the meal, party, or event, they can also force everyone involved to kowtow to their snobbish behaviors too.
That’s the premise underlying the dark horror comedy “The Menu” by director Mark Mylod. It all takes place on a tiny blip of an island that serves as the home for the exclusive restaurant The Hawthorne, as run by dictatorial head chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). With a kitchen crew of a dozen and Elsa (Hong Chau) as the frightening dining room director, guests are delighted to see and be seen by the other VIP diners at this remote gourmand destination.
But Chef Slowik isn’t planning an exotic meal to wow them but rather a long, slow dining experience that gradually begins to punish the diners who have sucked all the joy out of gourmet dining. He might have trained to serve the 1% but he clearly doesn’t like it and has grown to detest his patrons willing to pay over $1000/meal for the experience.
The diners are all rich, self-important people who earn more in a week than most folk do in a year, including self-proclaimed foodie Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) and his date Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), the has-been movie star (John Leguizamo) and his assistant Felicity (Aimee Carrero) who’s desperate to quit and get on with her life. There’s a famous, and famously vitriolic food critic, three “bros” who continually compliment each other on how successful they are, and more. All of them are narcissists and none of them can even remember what they ate for their last meal.
Interspersed with the slowly decaying experience, course by course, are closeups of the foods with ingredient lists, like a dark, horrific Food Network show that you really, really don’t want to be invited to judge. The juxtaposition between the intriguing dishes, Chef Slowik’s stories about each course, and the peculiar and alarming events that transpire between courses all add up to a film that will keep you guessing even as you remind yourself to thank the cook next time you get something as simple as a burger and fries.
The most intriguing of the characters is Margot (Taylor-Joy) who isn’t exactly who she seems, as Chef recognizes when she first enters the restaurant area. He’s planned his twisted menu without ever anticipating that someone who isn’t a full-on narcissist could be in the dining room, which leaves him trying to figure out whether she’s actually a server or whether she’s just another taker, oblivious to the lives, passions, and dreams of everyone around them.
The film was made in and around Savannah, Georgia, which offers a cold and inhospitable landscape with just a hint of gothic mystery in the woods and the piles of driftwood and mysterious items that have been blown ashore. There’s a pervasive threat about the landscape that gradually mirrors the overt threat that the guests face from Chef and his staff.
Where “The Menu” falls down is the ending. It reveals an inexplicable plot hole (that I can’t go into since it would be a huge spoiler) and results in an ending that will have you scratching your head and trying to figure out how everything led to that event. Nonetheless, this is a fun and darkly humorous skewering of the pretentiousness of modern foodies, oenophiles, and every other narcissist in our culture who seems more eager to prove they’re better than everyone else than actually enjoying their passion. Recommended.