Movie Review: Satire is a dish best served “gelled” in “The Menu”

“The Menu” is a darkly funny, culture-skewering satire that’s easier to defend on cinematic grounds than more — you know — logical ones.

It takes its design and tone from the austere aesthetics of chilly, modernist architecture, which mimics the “look of the land” one builds on in a structure of stone, burnished wood and polished steel, creating a restaurant with the feel of wealth and exclusivity, and all the warmth of an operating room.

That goes for the food in this “foodie thriller” as well — molecular gastronomy, with each gelled, flash-frozen, emulsified course a master class in chemistry, biology and history, pretentiously presented as an occasion in itself, paired with the perfect wine, fermented not just from grapes from “the same vineyard, but the same row of vines.”

And that’s but the backdrop, the milieu of “Succession/Game of Thrones” director Mark Mylod’s thriller, a morality tale with uncertain morality, a plot that doesn’t withstand much scrutiny and Anya Taylor-Joy as its sole “special effect.”

A collection of elite “types” gather on a dock, waiting for a motor yacht to take them to the The Hawthorne, most exclusive restaurant this corner of the world offers. They’re heading into a four and a half hour, multi-course prix fixe meal prepared by a huge staff from locally-sourced ingredients in a no expense spared eatery on an exclusive 12 acre island.

This “biome of culinary ideas” feeds twelve-and-only-twelve swells at each sitting, $1250 per person for the latest and the greatest from Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), who rules his kitchen foot-soldiers, and presides over his guests, like a dictator.

He announces each course with a thunderous clap that echoes through the stone, mahogany and steel dining room like a gunshot. Because we can’t have music to dine by in such a shrine to ego and eating. Diners are urged not to “eat,” but to “taste, savor, relish” each immaculately presented dish.

Every “Soup Nazi” must have his majordomo/maitre d, and the martinet Elsa (Hong Chau, brilliantly brittle) runs front of house like a military operation, her disciplined foot soldiers serving people from whom she expects the same discipline.

But “no photos” of the food, you poseurs, is sure to fall on deaf ears.

And who is this crowd? There’s the has-been actor (John Leguizamo) with dreams of a travel-cooking show comeback, and his turned-in-her-notice assistant (Aimee Carrero). A trio of rich tech bros (Rob Yang, Arturo Castro and Mark St. Cyr and an obscenely well-heeled older couple (Judith Light, Reed Birney) join chef’s elderly mother (Rebecca Koon), whom we gather is a regular.

“At least we can say we’ve been here” is overheard, which is the byword of attention whores in any “attention economy” eatery.

A career-making food-critic (Janet McTeer) who “made” our chef is here with her obsequious editor (Paul Adelstein).

And then there’s the foodie, the well-off and obnoxiously well-versed Tyler (Nicholas Hoult, perfectly annoying), here to explain why his date (Taylor-Joy) and us why we should relish this experience, revel in the glory of this “artist” and how she and we should celebrate every salmon-egg-sized morsel plated in front of us.

Taylor-Joy’s Margo? She is the audience’s surrogate, taking this all in, refusing to take it all that seriously and taking note of the all red flags about this evening she sees and hears from the all-knowing staff, which likes to “know who all of our guests are,” but which doesn’t know Margot. She was a last minute substitute date.

A bread course — with no bread, but a long written explanation of what they were not deemed worthy of eating — is the dead give-away. With no music to mask individual conversations, Margo and everyone else has to hear Elsa the maitre’d’s stage-whispered hiss to the tech bros.

“You will eat less than you desire and more than you deserve.

It’s when things go “off menu” that “The Menu” is supposed to turn exciting, and instead becomes problematic. We’ve not wholly established what makes this or that character so repellent and such a walking, talking and greedy social ill that they “deserve” whatever is to come, before whatever is to come arrives.

The violence is shocking, but the there’s a disconnect to it. “Our” grievance against “their” crimes and transgressions might be explained, but the explanations are lacking. The tailor-made comeuppances — a faithless spouse’s ring finger is lopped off — are too pat, too easy and in no real sense a punishment that fits the crime.

The diners’ rising paranoia is justified, their inertia in the face of a threat — save for the cryptic Margo — predestined. Like the “Blair Witch” Gen X filmmakers, utterly out of their depth in the woods, these coddled one percenters can’t figure out that being told to “run and hide” on an island of a mere 12 acres is a non-starter. And that exercise, cliched as it is, seems to have no point.

But Fiennes has the acting baggage that excuses any need to over-explain his character’s motives. And Mylod lets his camera fix on Taylor-Joy’s perpetually wide-eyed reactions and under-reactions to the mayhem that breaks out, letting us see her (sort of) reason her way through this “last supper.”

“The Menu” is entertaining enough. But the meal is — like the horror movie logic of it all — perfunctory, if magnificently presented. We may not see ourselves in the victims or the victimizers here. But we can all recognize a “type” who gets his just deserts — over dessert — when we see him.

Rating: R for strong/disturbing violent content, language throughout and some sexual references.

Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicholas Hoult, Judith Light, and John Leguizamo

Credits: Directed by Mark Mylod, scripted by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy. A Searchlight release.

Running time: 1:46

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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