Imagine willingly paying $1250 a head for a fine dining experience? To most of us, that hefty price tag per person is out of the question, especially with other reoccurring expenses needing attention every month. But there is no harm in indulging, splurging once in a while, treating yourself to the best an auteur has to offer. We all need food to survive so when given the opportunity to live a little, how can it be turned down. The Menu, directed by Mark Mylod and written by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy offers a peek at how the wealthiest 1% live and dine. It’s all about the experience, the theatrics of it all – the food itself is the supporting role to the visionary who spent years perfecting the craft of hospitality and service.
On a remote island, isolated from the remainder of society, an exclusive restaurant called Hawthorne resides on the nameless island, owned for a brief period by a wealthy angel investor but operated by world renowned celebrity chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). Slowik and his staff of obedient sous-chefs and employees live and work 24/365 in the service of those privileged to dine at the exclusive restaurant. I imagine, the waitlist is at least a year long, maybe more.
Altogether 11 lucky yet astoundingly wealthy food lovers or “foodies” all have a reservation to Hawthorne. Among them are Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), his date Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), food critic Lilian Bloom (Janet McTeer), Lilian’s editor Ted (Paul Adelstein), frequent Hawthorne regulars Richard Liebbrandt (Reed Birney) and his wife Anne (Judith Light), tech investors Soren (Arturo Castro), Bryce (Rob Yang), and Dave (Mark St. Cyr), actor George Diaz (John Leguizamo) and his personal assistant Felicity (Aimee Carrero). All expected to be dining with chef Slowik except 1 – Margot. She’s the wildcard wrenched in the evenings curated plan.
The dining experience begins with a tour of the island by Elsa (Hong Chau), Slowik’s maître d’ in which Slowik and his employees live and work on. The nights scallops are seen being caught fresh while an exact day the meat is sitting for. Elsa confirms the horror what an extra day would do to the human body if consumed. While majority don’t bat an eye to the tour and would rather get to the dinner that lasts roughly 4 hours, Tyler is and excuse the pun, eating up the moment he gets on the boat that transported the guests to the island to the tour and being in the same room as his idol.
As Tyler, Nicholas Hoult embodies the everyday person. He’s not wealthy like the rest of the guests but pays the price for the experience. Social media is flooded with food accounts and people who document every meal – we all do it, there’s no denying the fact. Hawthorne has a strict no pictures but to Tyler, you only live once and he’s doing it through his phone, oblivious to the events around him rather than living in the moment, soaking up the message behind the “menu”.
Starting with an amuse bouche, the “menu” has several courses that progressively become more involved and personal to its welcomed guests. Almost too intrusive if the guests have a say. Full of allegorically messages, Mylod deconstructs more than the raw ingredients used by Slowik for his symphony. Each course begins with a harsh single clap of the hands, as if that is the staff’s hypnotic response, triggering them to bend to Slowik’s will.
By the 4th course, the tension built by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy boils over – The Menu becomes something unexpected. The craft and passion that creatives have consumes them, putting life on hold to chase their dreams. Reiss and Tracy’s commentary on the over-ambitious, sacrificing family, friends and life boils over in a rousing theatrical manner. It isn’t just the staff that gets targeted by Slowik for becoming monsters.
Each guest was chosen for a reason. The “Taco Tuesday” course implicates many of the guests’ sins – each more deadly than the previous and the guests pay for those sins with more than their black cards based on the sin committed.
Looking at the performances from the small ensemble – Ralph Fiennes turns in yet another outstanding and unpredictable tortured villain. His unmeasurable talent shines through the screen, every clap and succeeding monologue makes it hard to look away. With success, Slowik has become a shell of his former self – Instead of loving what he does, is passion for cooking has diminished. It’s only because of Margot that he remembers his love for food and why he became a chef in the first place. Anya Taylor-Joy continues to impress with every role she’s in – 3 alone this year and all memorable in their own right. Regarding Mylod’s film, Taylor-Joy matches Fiennes in ferocity – challenging him to his mental game of chicken. Both are exceptional together.
As for the rest of the ensemble, Hoult, McTeer and Leguizamo all turn in solid performances. A very different food-based film for Leguizamo compared to his role in Chef. Leguizamo’s George Díaz is an actor who once cared about what roles he took but now uses his platform as a cash grab – taking roles for the paycheck instead of the art. McTeer’s Lilian Bloom is a food critic who helped Slowik gain the fame and notoriety early on in his career. A similar message of the role of a critic in Ratatouille can be found here in the screenplay. Maybe I should be sweating a bit under my collar going forward.
The Menu’s strongest aspect as the film moves forward through the evening is its screenplay. When a scene calls for an impact, one is made, when silence and confusion is called for, Reiss and Tracy go the extra mile. It’s the silence that speaks louder that the chaos of the unpredictable evening planned.
With all that is going on in The Menu the true beauty of the film is in its simplicity. A look on Fiennes face as he’s asked to prepare a simple meal says more than any line of dialogue could, or any micro dosed molecular gastronomy – passion and artistry matter. Showing kindness and humility toward those in the service industry should be priority number 1 for any patron whether it’s at a fast-food restaurant or at one on an isolated island where the chef charges $1250 per person on a prefix menu. It’s easy to lose sight of why we do things that we love, especially when success is involved. Do what burns a fire in your soul and never lose sight of it.
Screenplay By: Seth Reiss & Will Tracy
Directed By: Mark Mylod
Music By: Colin Stetson
Cinematography: Peter Deming
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicholas Hoult, Hong Chau, Janet McTeer, Reed Birney, Judith Light, John Leguizamo, Paul Adelstein
Release Date: November 18, 2022
Running Time: 1 Hour 47 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 90%