Thursday, January 5, 2023

'The Menu': horror comedy skewers haute cuisine

 The Menu

Dir: Mark Mylod

Scr: Seth Reiss and Will Tracy

Phot: Peter Deming

Ed: Christopher Tellifsen

Premiere: Nov. 18, 2022

106 min.

If you have ever been in a food service job, you will get it. If you’ve ever been to a fancy dinner where you didn’t understand what was going on, you will get it. The Menu is a dark satire that takes on the ridiculousness of high-profile fine-dining experiences, but its tale of madness and obsession is familiar both to those who dish it out and those who take it.

Taking it is, in fact, what the diners of The Menu must do, in ways they’ve never taken it before. Several super-wealthy patrons take a boat to a private island, where they will enjoy a multicourse meal prepared by the quietly remote master chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes at his icy best). Slowick is king of his world, a master chef whose every command is obeyed by his homogenous staff.

The guests consist of a wealthy couple, a washed-up movie star and his personal assistant, some crypto bros, a critic and her editor, and an obnoxious foodie (Nicholas Hoult) and his paid escort, Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy, who is in everything so why not in this as well?). Slowick’s mother quietly drinks herself to sleep in the corner.

As the meal progresses, the courses get stranger. Chef talks about his impoverished and abused childhood. The maître d, Elsa (Hong Chau), starts abusing the guests. All the while, a sprightly sommelier continues to ply everyone with the appropriate accompanying wine. A sous chef performs a staged suicide.

Then it gets weird.

The filmmakers exercised due diligence in making the film look as convincing as possible – hiring food designer Dominique Crenn and using second unit director David Gelb, who created the Chef’s Table TV docuseries, to make the tone of the film conform to that of the high-end food show. The Menu’s restaurant is all too familiar, an intimidating high-tech, uneaseful space that emphasizes the dominance of the adjoining kitchen.

 The players all maintain straight faces as the carnage begins, and the filmmakers play it straight, too, never tipping their hand or getting ahead of the audience. The airy ridiculousness of fine dining’s conceits and conceptions are skewered thoroughly here.

As the evening unfolds, a laundry list of woes peculiar to the restaurant business are recited – the ingratitude for the effort and energy put into creating nourishing entertainments, the stubborn whims of the customer, who must always be accommodated, the dependence on other peoples' money, the lack of a real life in the business. The NO SUBSTITUTIONS policy. Any cook or server who ever dealt with a recalcitrant patron will savor the various punishments meted out to the assembled customers.

In the end, it’s the pumpers versus the dumpers, and everyone collaborates in their own destruction, save for the cynical and resourceful Margot, who serves as the Ishmael of this fishy tale. An ominous joke of a film, The Menu masterfully deconstructs the curious carapace of conceptions we have constructed around the simple act of eating food.



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