‘The Menu’ Serves a Viciously Refined Satire to Eat the Rich
More than ever food has come to define class and status in our society. If you can afford the pricey, supposedly healthier meal, then you must be quite comfortable. What if the chef making the luscious food turned on the customer? That’s the premise of “The Menu,” the most recent jab at the elite but served with a refined style that combines shock with subtly. Like many effective satires about class, it’s a dark comedy of manners. You can come from any background but can be instantly assessed, or judged, on how you treat someone else. Director Mark Mylod brings together an ensemble that also engages in how well put together it is, with faces and personas that all capture a little something about those silent borders in society.
The setting is the very fantasy of those who obsessively indulge in fine dining. Hawthorne is a restaurant with its own island in the Pacific Northwest. It is headed by world famous chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), who runs his kitchen like a well-oiled militia, complete with militaristic commands. His guests tonight are an exclusive ensemble of elites who have each paid $1,250 for the privilege of tasting Julian’s creations. At the tables we meet super fan Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) and his date, Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy). In another corner there’s a snobby food critic, Lillian (Janet McTeer), a vain action movie star past his prime (John Leguizamo) and some arrogant tech entrepreneurs, Bryce (Rob Yang), Soren (Arturo Castro) and Dave (Mark St. Cyr). They are all expecting quite the feast from Julian and instead, are served dishes minimalist but expressive, which say something about the chef, but even more about their parasitic existence.
“I think one of the things that drew us all to the project was that lovely mashup of tones. It’s quite a small target to hit,” Mylod tells Entertainment Voice. “It was perhaps less about what we were actually saying and more about us all tuning in by osmosis, perhaps unconsciously to get on the same level. I think it’s a Sydney Pollack quote about everybody making the same movie, so that by the time we were on set, we all tuned in together and we continued to do so with the huge benefit of shooting the film almost entirely chronologically.” The flow of “The Menu” does feel convincingly like a surreal dinner with its beginning and closing stages, but designed as a microcosm of society’s more privileged sectors. Like Luis Bunuel’s “The Exterminating Angel” or Peter Greenaway’s “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover,” the restaurant or dinner tables are channels for obsessions and social codes. The production design is brilliant because it evokes both purgatory and the sort of low-lit, high-end establishment associated with major restaurants. The décor is the perks of access staring the guests in the face, yet by now they have no sense of self. The tech bros are astonished when the maître d’, Elsa (Hong Chau), rejects their demands, such as wanting bread when it isn’t offered on tonight’s menu. It’s almost an affront that nobody dares follow the house rules.
As the night progresses the plot’s layers unravel more of what’s really going on. Julian’s dishes are designed to evoke memories of his childhood or at times mock the notion of needing to dive into a massive, expensive meal. Tortillas are served depicting revelatory, even incriminating information or memories concerning the guests. Cooks from Julian’s kitchen become participants, including in one shocking act. Mylod continuously cuts to close ups of the served dishes, as if we were flipping through a fine dining magazine. The kind manners of the diners begin to slip away, revealing their true, unsavory selves. Naturally the tech guys are embezzling money and the older, established Richard (Reed Birney), is having an affair. Leguizamo’s movie star has brought along an aspiring actress he will never open a door for. “I love the political and social commentary of this film because I feel like it’s tapping into something that’s happening, especially in America, maybe across the world as well,” Leguizamo tells Entertainment Voice. “The disappearing middle class, and these billionaires who think they can control our democracies, control our social platforms, control us, and how they separate us and keep us out and go into their little special bubbles. I think it’s a great commentary on the privilege that’s happening in America, and entitlement and people creating an ‘us vs. them’ and I love them getting their punishment in this flick.”
Overlooking it all is Ralph Fiennes is another example of his capacity for intelligent, controlled performances. Julian keeps his rages bottled in, but they come out in what he places on the tables of the guests. He also captures well the idea of the chef as an artist, approaching the kitchen like a canvas, except here it’s for revenge as well. Exactly for what is something else Fiennes captures with wonderful subtly. He’s sick of serving the top brass, so he will slowly entrap them for the big finale. “Oh, what can I say about Ralph? He’s the most phenomenal actor, but the thing that’s interesting is he’s so talented that whatever he wants to transmute on screen, that will happen,” Anya Taylor-Joy tells Entertainment Voice. “So of course, as an audience member you will feel this formidable presence and this fear, whenever he’s there.” There is also a palpable vulnerability to Fiennes. He and Taylor-Joy’s Margot connect because she’s the one guest we sense doesn’t care to be here. She’s dragged along by the boorish Tyler, played by Nicholas Hoult with a more subdued version of the bratty guy he evokes so well in “The Great.” Julian sees in Margot someone he can secretly relate to, because they both live at the whim of the powerful. “All of our scenes together felt so warm and intimate even when we were being quite rude to each other, when the stakes were pretty high. I always just felt really comfortable with him and I felt like I had a very generous dance partner and that we were both enjoying that bizarre intimacy.”
Good satire has to be upfront without getting too on the nose. The point is to say something and “The Menu” targets not so much the idea of being rich, but how being rich affects our relations to each other as people. Julian knows that if he wasn’t a world renowned chef, none of these guests would be here. So before dropping the big finish to his masterpiece, he stuns them into consciousness in other ways, even in allowing one of his cooks to stab his leg as a reprimand for having come on to her at one point in her career. Later, the movie commits another act of rebellion when Julian is inspired to make that most proletarian of meals, a cheeseburger. It may be snarky, but “The Menu” is also elegantly entertaining. A body part or two will also be severed at some points. Class war can get quite bloody, and this movie serves plenty of it in measured doses, on hot and cold dishes.
“The Menu” releases Nov. 18 in theaters nationwide.