The world of fine dining restaurants is prime for satire, but one which I haven’t necessarily seen done well before. While watching Mark Mylod’s “The Menu”, I imagined a mockumentary in the style of Christopher Guest’s 2000 hit “Best In Show” in which various members of the elite world of Michelin star restaurants and gastric infusions are interviewed in the lead up to a high end New York restaurant being awarded its third Michelin star. The various wacky characters of this world would be interviewed and everyone would have a good time. And now that Jennifer Coolidge is back in everyone’s good books, she could play the rich heiress who is eating her caviar without toast since she’s on Atkins. The thing is, “The Menu” has all the building blocks for something exactly like this and for the first say half hour to forty minutes of the film, this is sort of the direction in which the film was going anyway. It’s quick, slick, biting and often very funny. But then, about a third of the way through the film, the often clever and sharp satire with whispers of something sinister is abruptly subverted into a full blown horror, and unfortunately it’s just not a very good one.
An elite party of guests have been invited to Hawthorn, an enormously exclusive and acclaimed fine dining restaurant run by eccentric celebrity chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) and located on an island only accessible for guests by boat. We have ardent foodie Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) and his date Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), a sanctimonious food critic and her editor, a wealthy older couple who use Hawthorn as their regular haunt, a group of sleazy businessmen and a D grade movie star and his publicist. It becomes clear very soon that this is no ordinary evening and Chef Slowik has not prepared an ordinary menu for this group. As the evening progresses, the twisted intentions of Slowik and his staff are revealed as a sadistic game in which each course of the menu teaches the guests some kind of perverse and violent lesson of morality (not dissimilar to the murders in David Fincher’s “Se7en”. And it’s not to be an evening which any of them will survive).
As I said, the initial commentary on the pretentiousness of this world is pitch perfect, down to the description of a Pinot Noir which has been hyper-decanted with an immersion blender to awaken it from its slumber and a flavour palate of Slavonian oak, rich cherry and tobacco notes, with a faint sense of longing and regret. Or the first course of plants from around the island, placed on rocks from the shore, covered in barely frozen, filtered seawater which will flavor the dish as it melts. The pontification around the food and the culinary process is pompous to the point of ridiculous, but never so far that it’s completely removed from reality. And listening to the guests justifying and pretending to comprehend the genius of some of the more outlandish items of the menu (for instance that the decision not to serve bread as it’s the food of the common man, not fit for the likes of the guests attending Hawthorn) is hysterical.
Once it becomes obvious that Chef and the restaurant staff aren’t putting on a show but are actually deranged, the film loses what made it unique and fun. It stops becoming a critique of the silliness of the world of fine dining, which is an intriguing and original premise, and becomes just another entrapment thriller with a sociopath at the helm. The motivations of Chef Slowik as a villain are pretty flimsy (not that they necessarily need to be steeped in logic for a movie like this, but there’s a fair bit of philosophical and moralistic musings that go on with not a whole lot of substance to them). The performances suffer as well once the shift to horror occurs, because each character has been created based on how they fit in to the wanky world of high class restaurants. So each of the guests are pretty intriguing for the first act, but soon dissolve into faceless horror movie drones with nothing remotely interesting to do other than respond to the increasing amounts of blood being splattered across the place. Fiennes too is far more engaging when we think he’s an eccentric and highly strung chef, because once you find out he’s a mass murderer, the bar for his character to be unique shifts dramatically. We’ve seen plenty of psychopathic whackos in film so any new ones have got to be pretty impressive for them to stick out.
During the first few courses, (before the guests figure out for sure that Slovik is insane and probably going to kill them all), there is an underlying sense of unease and creepiness about the whole place which is chilling. Somehow this is more unnerving than when the film loses all pretence and becomes a full blown slasher, abandoning all subtlety. I suppose similar to the way in which it’s always scarier when Michael Myers is hiding in the shadows compared to when he actually springs forth and stabs his victims.
There was such a promising premise here, and for a good 40 minutes of “The Menu” I was completely sold. The underlying sense of foreboding was enough to make the audience feel uneasy while still leaving room to poke fun at the high fliers of the culinary world. It was a winning formula which got thrown out the window far too quickly, and it’s a shame. And Christopher Guest, if you’re reading (what am I talking about, of course you are) I’ve already got some dialogue written for the food critic who is convinced that tapioca is the new frontier in fine dining.
By Jock Lehman