Just Desserts — The Menu Review

So, here I am writing a review for a movie where a food critic meets a scorching end as a human s’more. The irony isn’t lost on me, but I loved Mark Mylod’s set of fables in The Menu, a riveting blend of black comedy and social commentary told in bite-size parables that had me questioning my own place in the arts food chain.

From start to finish, Mylod — of Succession and Shameless fame — moves audiences through a sophisticated set of courses that carry the film’s plot and themes. The premise is simple — a group of wealthy patrons head to an exclusive restaurant run by famed five-star chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes).

The group is led on a tour around the island where they get a glimpse of how far Chef Slowik and his team will go for culinary greatness. When a guest asks what happens if a particular cut of meat is aged a day too long, he’s met with a dire response — a slow and painful death by whoever consumes it.

By the time they’re seated for dinner, the table is set for a night no one will forget.

Slowik, his forcefully reserved and controlled facade hiding a seething bitterness, introduces each of his courses with a bit of personal history as guests try to clue themselves into the night’s overall theme. Tensions grow as the narrative’s darker side bubbles to the surface.

Each of Slowik’s guests represent an archetype — the cheating husband whose thoughts are constantly elsewhere, the insecure has-been actor name-dropping Slowik for clout, and the three financier bros who find themselves outclassed and punching way outside their weight when things go awry.

The handpicked guests were chosen with meticulous care, each having personally offended Slowik in some way. There’s Lillian Bloom (Janet McTeer), a prominent food critic who championed Slowik early on but has become one of his biggest detractors. When tortillas laser-engraved with “memories” are served, Bloom gets a stack of restaurants she’s closed due to poor reviews.

With each new course, more grievances are revealed, and the patrons must grapple with the inevitable — they’re participating in their own final supper. Each has contributed in some way to Slowik’s passion for food dying a slow and painful death over the years. Slowik’s passive depression has turned to active hatred, and the chef has decided to leave this mortal coil and take a few with him.

The revenge plot works because The Menu isn’t about just retribution or moral victories. Slowik doesn’t want to teach his enemies a lesson they can improve themselves with — he just wants them to suffer and die. And the movie doesn’t rely on big twists or turns to keep the audience enrapt. If you spend the first half of the movie jumping to conclusions, you’ll find them subverted. Actor George Diaz (John Leguizamo) finds out he’s earned Slowik’s petty scorn after the chef wasted a day off watching one of Diaz’s movies.

But why Felicity, Diaz’s personal assistant who graduated from Ivy-League Brown University?

“Student debt?”

“No,” she replies.

“Then, you die.”

This isn’t the Usual Suspects waiting until its final curtain reveal to unleash the full impact of its story. The suspense in The Menu is weaved into the narrative as Slowik relentlessly leads his guests through the menu for the night. It’s a little bit of Very Bad Things and Knives Out — patrons get their just desserts with no escape. Meanwhile, the movie’s overall theme explores the death of art in a social media world where everyone is a critic.

It made me question my own place in the artisphere — Would the world be better off if I stopped putting my thoughts out into the Internet? In a mass-media world driven by clicks where everything moves at the speed of light, are we prematurely ending the careers of directors, producers, actors, cinematographers, and musicians before they’ve learned from their mistakes?

Has perfection become the enemy of good?

It’s not every day I’ve come out of a movie relating to the villains, but I loved every moment of The Menu, which is an experience for the eyes as well. Filmed like a prestige food series, with appetite-whetting close-up shots courtesy of cinematograper Peter Deming, each course ends with a artful shots of the food and its ingredients along with soothing music in contrast to the increasingly tense circumstances splattered with blood and tears.

Fiennes is amazing as Slowik. Quietly seething and domineering in every sequence he’s featured in, his performance is reminiscent of his career-defining role as one of cinema’s most notorious villains, Amon-Goeth from Schindler’s List. Slowik is calm and cool as he introduces each course, but his interactions with Anya Taylor-Joy’s Margot gives him other dimensions to explore as he tries to get a better understanding of the uninvited guest while keeping her from spoiling his plans.

In fact, all members of the cast are brilliant. Taylor-Joy shines in every scene she’s in, and everyone will recognize Nicholas Hoult’s Tyler because we all have one in our friend group. McTeer and Paul Adelstein have great chemistry as they play off each other, the dour critic and her sycophantic editor, and Hong Chau’s Elsa’s last words as she dies are completely tragic.

There’s a sobering moment when Margot asks Chef Slowik to make her a cheeseburger. It was at that moment, I rolled my eyes thinking the movie was going to fold under the weight of its plot. Somehow, the structure stays erect, and the scene, which could have devolved into a sentimental mess, shows the movie’s bleeding heart for a brief but intensely bright moment.

In The Menu, we see the death of an artist. In the real world, we may be witnessing the death of art itself.

The Menu (2022)
Directed by: Mark Mylod
Screenplay by: Seth Reiss and Will Tracy
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicholas Hoult, Hong Chau, Janet McTeer, Paul Adelstein, John Leguizamo, Aimee Carrero, Reed Birney, Judith Light, Rebecca Koon, Rob Yang, Arturo Castro, Mark St. Cyr, Peter Grosz, Christina Brucato, and Adam Aalderks

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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