Review: Art is on ‘The Menu’ as biting satire serves up some mean cuisine
An elite, motley crew assembles for a very special dinner in the deliciously dark thriller satire “The Menu,” a philosophical deconstruction of artists and their enablers. Written by “The Onion” veterans Seth Reiss and Will Tracy and directed by Mark Mylod, who made his name in prestige television directing episodes of “Game of Thrones” and “Succession,” “The Menu” is a tightly wound, sharply rendered skewering of the dichotomy between the takers and the givers, or in this case, the eaters and the cooks.
The recipe for “The Menu” is one filet of bloody class warfare à la “Ready or Not,” a dash of cultish folk horror in the vein of “Midsommar,” a puree of “Chef’s Table,” dusted with a sprinkling of “Pig,” and spritzed with an essence of “Clue.” We go along for this ride through the point-of-view of a classic Final Girl, the spunky, sarcastic and street-smart Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), a late addition to the guest list who is an unexpected and unpredictable element in the sauce.
The restaurant is Hawthorne, located on a remote coastal island in the Pacific Northwest; the chef is Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). The guests include a food critic (Janet McTeer) and her editor (Paul Adelstein), a group of finance guys (Rob Yang, Arturo Castro, and Mark St. Cyr), a diehard fan (Nicholas Hoult), a movie star (John Leguizamo) and his assistant (Aimee Carrero), and a pair of regulars (Reed Birney and Judith Light). The group submits themselves to the culinary experience they are about to have at the hands of Chef Slowik, his cult of sous chefs, and his stern hostess, Elsa (Hong Chau).
At first, it all seems painfully pretentious as the guests are served up dishes such as “The Island” (a scallop perched atop a rock) and the “Unaccompanied Accompaniments,” which take deconstruction to a whole new level. Then the menu becomes a walk down memory lane for Chef Slowik, taking a turn toward the uncomfortably personal, then accusatory, shocking, aggressive, and violent.
The central metaphor is plainly obvious. “The Menu” is not about food, or eating, but about the consumption of art, as well as the forces the artist finds himself subjected to while attempting to create. Chef Slowik has sold his soul for success, subjecting himself to the whims of the big money investors, the critics, the celebrities, his mindless consumers, and worst of all, his fanboys, who think they know more than the experts, and are willing to meddle too (the fanboys get it worst of all here). That’s not to say that Chef Slowik is a victim. No, he’s the antagonist here, but Fiennes plays him as a tortured soul who is attempting to reckon — violently — with his own selling out, and takes no pleasure in the process.
Reiss and Tracy have borrowed the increasingly pretentious and over-the-top world of high-end dining experiences to craft a screenplay that feels like an exorcism of sorts; a cathartic primal scream about the state of the industry of art, be it film, television, literature, visual art or food. The artist, despite his or her inclinations or inspirations, is always beholden to the critics, the investors and the fans, and “The Menu” is both a violent rejection of that paradigm as well as a darkly humorous acceptance of it all.
Mylod has taken this script, a wordy, writerly existential crisis, and presented a slick, somewhat cold, offering. The acting is flawless, Peter Deming’s cinematography crisp, Colin Stetson’s jaggedy score appropriately unsettling. If the outré ending jumps the shark, well, it’s been earned — the satisfying “Menu” has already left us much to chew on.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
Rated: R, for strong/disturbing violent content, language throughout and some sexual references
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Playing: Starts Nov. 18 in general release
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