The Menu (NC16)
107 minutes, opens Thursday
The story: On an island in the north-west of the United States, a group of guests gather at Hawthorne, a temple of modernist cooking run by revered chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). Among those making the pilgrimage is Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), a foodie who has brought Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), a woman with no interest in the culinary treasures before her. Others in the group include a fading movie star, a famous food writer and newly rich tech bros. As the minutes tick by, the guests find themselves a part of a larger, more violent drama.
American film-maker Jordan Peele launched Get Out (2017) and showed it was possible to blend humour and horror while dealing with the issues of class and race.
The Menu aims to mix the same ingredients. However, a cast fronted by A-listers, a richly detailed set and a dedication to culinary authenticity do not save this work from a story that aims high but falls short.
It is supposed to be a horror-tinged black comedy with a satirical edge, but it fails to hit the marks of horror, comedy or satire, a fault most likely due to it being loyal to the Hollywood principle that stars must have starring roles.
So what might have been an ensemble-driven mystery thriller is now foregrounded by Fiennes’ chef Slowik and Taylor-Joy’s Margot characters, with the rest of the cast moving rearwards, even though they appear to be the more interesting people.
Margot is a mystery in the first half of the film, so the less said the better, while the chef is a composite of all the austere high priests of cooking glimpsed on television, the low-key ones who command their underlings telepathically and decorate dishes with tiny flowers arranged with tweezers.
Despite the rich pickings, the film never gives culinary pretension the skewering it deserves. The pokes that are there are oddly stilted, playing on the idea that haute cuisine is cultish and insular. It is a lazy observation, because the same can be said of any area of the arts.
Both Margot and chef Slowik get a full character reveal by the end of the course. But, as they say, just because it has been put out there does not mean it is explained, and this film’s idea of an explanation is insultingly shallow.
Director Mark Mylod and co-writer Will Tracy come with credentials from HBO’s Emmy-winning series Succession (2018 to present), so the DNA carried over from that business drama to this movie is apparent.
Every character here, as in Succession, is mildly unlikable. The problem is that in a movie, there is no time to show vulnerability or hyper-competence.
In a series, these traits can make a terrible human being tolerable, even worthy of admiration. Only John Leguizamo’s unnamed Movie Star character, a man coasting on a threadbare reputation, conveys a degree of pathos.
Hot take: The Menu is blessed with a stellar cast, fastidious set design and realistic culinary depictions, but fails to deliver more than a thin soup.