Movie ReviewThe MenuDirected by Mark Mylod
A SCENE from the film The Menu.
The Menu at least for the first half is nasty fun, served up in high style by Mark Mylod, from a story idea by Will Tracy.
The story — of a handful of guests sitting down for what promises to be the meal of their life — sounds like The Most Dangerous Game retold as an episode of Chef’s Table, and one of the better jokes ropes in David Gelb to recreate his dish presentations in the aforementioned Netflix series, from the soft glamor lighting to the matte-black background to the labels that fade into one corner of the screen, with a succinct description of the dish. The guests take a ferry ride (during which they’re presented an oyster bite) to the world-famous Hawthorn, located on a private island. They’re given a tour, emphasizing the locally farmed and foraged nature of the kitchen’s ingredients, and you recognize the restaurant being parodied, Renz Redzepi’s Noma, oft considered the greatest restaurant in the world.
The guests are given a tour by maître d’ Elsa (Hong Chau), who takes them past beaches crawling with crabs and digger clams, manicured gardens swarming with bees, a smokehouse where they age retired dairy cows for 150 days. Retired dairy cows because of their age are a tastier but tougher meat (in Spain they’re prized as a delicacy, in the United States they’re cheap hamburger); Magnus Nilsson covered these hunks of meat in kidney fat and aged them till the fibers broke down and the fat truly interspersed with the flesh — hence the next-level concentration of flavor. Learned about this, of course, in the PBS episode on Nilsson in Mind of a Chef.
Easily the tastiest portion of The Menu recreates the high holy world of cutting-edge cuisine, from Redzepi’s foraged ingredients to Nilsson’s fossilized steaks to Ferran Adria’s foams and gels — you recognize the different elements being parodied and recognize exactly who Nicholas Hoult as Taylor is sending up — you, the precious know-it-all gourmand whose life’s mission is to undertake a pilgrimage to similar culinary shrines (it helps that Dominique Crenn of two-Michelin-star Atelier Crenn plays consultant).
We quickly get the joke — perhaps as early as the ferry boat ride, but definitely by the time the doors of Hawthorn pivot close, like a bank vault clanking shut for the day. Mylod and Tracy escalate the joke with sneaky little details, like the way Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes in Nazi commandant mode) imperiously claps his hands and his crack brigade de cuisine snaps to attention; the dishes arrive deliriously beautiful beyond belief with brief explanations from Slowik that grow more and more unsettling till he’s sharing dark details about his alcoholic parents and abused childhood.
Hoult nicely describes the appeal of this world with a brief speech: “…athletes and musicians and painters… play with inflatable balls and ukuleles and shit. Chefs they play with the raw materials of life itself, and death itself… I’ve watched him (Slowik) plate a raw scallop during its last dying contraction of muscle. It’s art on the edge of the abyss, which is where God works too.” Hearing such profound words stating a man’s entire philosophy not just on food but art and life and passion issue from the mouth of a total ninny is not a little withering; the movie is a mirror and, yes, that’s your saucer-eyed face staring straight back.
Too bad about the rest of the picture. As long as the guests are kept guessing — “is this part of the show or is this really happening?” — it’s a sly black comedy; but the moment the guests know suddenly it’s near-all horror and not a lot of funny (the shots of Hoult still eating though are hilarious). Part of what made the previous shenanigans comic was that the guests were still buying into Slowik’s schtick; they were willing to sit and be verbally and psychologically abused and still eat his food (easily the funniest gag in the picture is when they’re presented the check). With the violence out in the open suddenly the question of “why don’t they fight?” comes up, and, yes, there’s discussion of revolt, and, yes, Slowik notes that they do not try fight very hard for their freedom — but mentioning an implausibility doesn’t quite excuse it (though it goes a long way), and the whole already improbable premise pushes a step too far into cartoon, not just satire. I’d call it a question of balance and tone, which Mylod and Tracy don’t quite achieve, and ultimately a failure of imagination — up to a point the abuse served a carefully designed purpose (exposing the guests to themselves); beyond that the violence is mostly meaningless.
Anya Taylor Joy as Tyler’s date Margot does put in an excellent performance as the one guest that doesn’t belong — her chemistry with Fiennes’ Slowik suggests not so much an attraction as a recognition, and an understanding between two working stiffs who have strayed far from their ideal.
Margot does goad Slowik into adding an extra course, a cheeseburger — which I’d like to point out is actually a smashburger, a genre of burger that uses cheap ground beef (this cooking technique would be wasted on expensive meat) smashed onto the grill for a crisped crust — perfect for the humble backyard grillmaster.
The Menu starts off in smashing style, loses its footing, and impossibly sticks its landing — where Margot demands of all things a cheeseburger, Slowik ends his spectacular blood-spattered meal with of all things a s’mores dessert (the contribution of sous-chef Katherine [Christina Brucato]?).
But the real punchline came months after in real life, when Noma announced its impending closure: Redzepi had decided that this business model for eateries is ultimately unsustainable. What’s the implication for gourmands — the common term nowadays being foodies — like me? Up the creek without a paddle, apparently, and ready to accept my own chocolate hat and marshmallow stole. Thank you, chef.