For the guests of Ralph Fiennes in The Menu, a reservation is definitely needed for his exclusive island restaurant retreat. Of course, no such requirement is in place for us common folk in the viewing audience. Still, once getting a seat at the table there might be some confusion. Like having a side order of fast food with filet mignon, the 107 minute feature is both hilarious and horrifying, and director Mark Mylod’s dichotomy will have you unsure of which to chew on. But by the time the fifth course arrives, a five star rating is assured.
Beginning in port, our betters are lined up with their itinerary, and we quickly feel pretty unworthy. The fellow travelers are prepared to jaunt off to an island that probably has its territorial waters marked and ready to redirect any capsizing vessels or unauthorized coast guard vehicles.
Nonetheless, the first guest that sticks out is Tyler (Nicholas Hoult). He’s a foodie fanboy who idolizes Chef Slowik, and if they had baseball cards for cooks, he’d be trading all day on eBay for collectibles.
A weak pliability at the heart of Hoult’s strong performance, his character has no shame emoting his self important expertise and is mostly unconcerned how the pretension puts off his date. In this, Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) is the boogey in the lot.
Not among the entitled rich, Margo still is a sort of royalty thanks to Taylor-Joy’s performance. She’s sensible, not persuaded by fluff and isn’t afraid to call anyone out. So in keeping with the menu, Taylor-Joy’s street smart says her character would probably be happiest with a cheeseburger and isn’t impressed with Tyler, the other guests or the excess they pursue.
The common touch isn’t the only thing that makes her stick out, though. Tyler swapped out one of his kind and inserted Margot at the last minute. So when her name is not on the guest list, Elsa (Hong Chau) does not take kindly. Chau gives a searing look of disdain like she’s Jason Statham in The Transporter, and you just loaded his car up with four occupants instead of three.
The stridency is a bit odd, but so is a day trip of dinner and dessert that goes for $1250 a plate. We will also find out that there’s more to this than eating. The Chef sees his work as a serious endeavor that takes all the senses and requires a heightened sense of intellectual appreciation. Thus, the serious adherence to a plan seems reasonable, and we go along.
Disembarking, Elsa sticks to the protocol. She methodically plays tour guide and the setting is just as ordered. Somewhat taken aback by the almost military arrangement of the living quarters and the process of production, the customers follow like they are getting what they paid for.
Of course, Elsa's command and demand elevates the build up for the man who inspires so much professional diligence in his primary underling, and the same goes for his culinary staff. The assistants slice and dice like their movements have been keenly choreographed, and the curtain has just gone up. Such a production, even the common man feels envious of the excessive pampering.
And now we’re ready. Chef Slowik emerges, and his workers aren’t the only ones who are intimidated by his presence. He inspects with quiet resolve, and then to a thunderous single clap, both sides of the fourth wall are shocked into subservience.
Chef is as expected. He’s serious, dedicated to his craft, and from behind the front, we can feel a commensurate degree of lunacy that goes along with all we’ve seen.
So Chef introduces the first course, and while informative, he shows signs of not adhering to the customer server relationship. He’s a bit rude and prickly, but by now we know that’s par for the course.
Unsurprisingly, Margot is still not moved and you can see how the power of her “royalty” gets under the skin of our host. Not enough to alter his conceptual presentation, the trajectory begins to descend. The storytelling that goes with the introduction of the next course is somewhat inappropriate and hinges on crossing the line.
The guests start to stir, and with a bang, the borderline is suddenly breached. This chef isn’t slightly insane, he’s criminally insane. In turn, his antics elevate and no doubt, the terror definitely has an audience. Alone on an island and outnumbered, they are captive and so are we.
That said, another imaginary line also falls away. To this point, The Menu is a genuinely amusing look at the frivolousness of the rich, and as the intended fear evolves toward the lighter side, the laughter starts coming out loud.
Remarkably, the comedy is done largely without the use of punchlines, and Fiennes really carries the load. Despite passing the rubicon, his demeanor and delivery do not change.
In this, Fiennes will make a declaration, and under normal circumstances, his assertion would be taken at face value. But here he's doing so under the guise of doing serious bodily harm, and the juxtaposition has us laughing (inappropriately) all over the place.
Refusing to alter the course of his well thought out agenda piles the macabre on even heavier, but what is his mission. We’ve seen movie characters who have found the bad actors in society, and since they are beyond the constraints of the criminal justice system, a force like Chef takes the law into their own hands.
So let’s take a look at the guests, because who doesn’t love a good vigilante. John Leguizamo has made the choice of making bad movies for good money and that does not sit well with Chef. Neither does the supposed artist, which is Lillian (Janet McTeer). Haughty and overly confident, she’s a food reviewer who has the power to make and break careers, and seems to do so without much distress or care.
There’s also a philandering husband and just the way he tolerates his wife (and the help) is quite dismaying. And finally there’s a trio of young corrupt businessmen, who more significantly, ooze undeserved entitlement.
That’s it. They are rich, spoiled and selfish, and obviously as a service worker, Chef has had to suck it up and swallow hard in response to their kind.
Now that’s funny, and we see why Elsa and Chef couldn’t handle the change in menu that Margot represents. So where she stands in this morass helps complete the story
A bit on the silly side is the end. But the unraveling does make the movie’s point, and no doubt, the full experience will settle real well in your stomach.