Way, way back, when the now-closed Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago was considered one of the top restaurants in the world, I was given the opportunity (via a radio hosting gig) to dine in the kitchen of the famed eatery — an exclusive culinary experience coveted by sophisticated diners the world over.
It was… good! But menu items such as “Poached Breast of Squab with Braised Leg, Black Cardamon Infused Carrot, Yellowfoot Mushrooms and Thai Long Pepper Squab Reduction” (I had to look that up) are pretty much wasted on my palate. Still, I have to admit a certain fascination with the Foodie Culture, as embodied by all these modern-day, rock-star chefs, and the vast array of reality/competition cooking shows out there.
It’s also a world ripe for withering satire and a sharp skewering, which is just what we get in the outrageously wacky, deeply cynical and flat-out bizarro dark comedy “The Menu.” Working from a clever if sometimes ridiculously over-the-top script by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, the British director Mark Mylod (“Game of Thrones,” “Succession”) teams with a well-cast ensemble to deliver a deadpan spoof of “ Cabin in the Woods” type horror films, draped in a “White Lotus” setting.
This is the kind of movie where you either go with it, or you head for the exits a half-hour in. Either you’re all aboard for a trip to Fantasy Island that quickly goes sideways, or you’re like: I got the joke, you keep telling the joke, I’m over the joke. “The Menu” doesn’t quite deliver on the potentially brilliant promise of the first few appetizer scenes, but it’s a film committed to serving up flaming dishes of black comedy to the very bitter end. If you labeled “The Menu” as a cross between “Saw” and Agatha Christie, you wouldn’t be wrong.
With the veteran cinematographer Peter Deming (“Mulholland Drive,” a number of the “Scream” movies) delivering striking and at times terrifying visuals, and the production design creating an atmosphere simultaneously lavish and unsettling, “The Menu” takes place primarily in a high temple of fine cuisine known as the Hawthorn, which is so exclusive it is located on its own island, and customers pay $1,250 per person to dine on the tasting menu prepared by the mysterious and legendary Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes).
Let’s meet the dinner guests!
- Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) is a pretentious foodie who worships Chef Slowik like a god, and chastises his last-minute date, Margot (Anya-Taylor Joy), for daring to smoke a cigarette while they await passage to the island. It’ll dull her palate! Margot, for her part, couldn’t give a s— about such nonsense. She’s just here on a bit of a lark.
- Lillian (Janet McTeer) is a powerful food critic who takes pride in the number of restaurants she has shuttered with her killer reviews. Her dining companion is her obnoxiously sycophantic editor, Ted (Paul Adelstein).
- Richard and Anne (Reed Birney and Judith Light) are a wealthy, older couple who have dined at Hawthorn a dozen times before.
- An unnamed, fading minor movie star (John Leguizamo), accompanied by his long-suffering assistant (Aimee Carrero), is using the experience as preparation for his upcoming gig as the host of a reality cooking show.
- A trio of jerky tech bros (Rob Yang, Arturo Castro and Mark St. Cyr), whose boss is the main investor backing the Hawthorn, are here mainly so they can brag about having been here.
The kitchen staff lives in sparse barracks, and they sound like soldiers when they respond with “YES CHEF!” to the commands of their fearless leader. Chef Slowik runs the dining experience with military-like precision, introducing each course with speeches that grow increasingly pretentious and increasingly dark as the evening becomes ever more sinister. (“Do not EAT,” he commands the customers. “TASTE.”) With Slowik’s loyal, humorless and intimidating right-hand person Elsa (Hong Chau) keeping a keen eye on the proceedings and treating the diners like inmates, the menu in “The Menu” reaches the heights of absurdity when Chef serves up a “breadless bread plate” consisting only of dipping sauces, which some of the customers actually find to be an inspired choice when of course it’s the height of nonsense.
Just about everyone in the open-concept restaurant, from Chef Slowik to his support staff to the customers, is terrible, with the notable exception of Margot, who acts as our surrogate throughout the proceedings — recoiling in horror when Tyler unironically employs such terms as “mouth feel,” pointing out that one course is basically “pond scum,” and challenging the chef to cook up something resembling real food that real people eat. Anya Taylor-Joy brings her unique style to what is essentially a horror movie “Final Girl” role, while the reliable veterans including McTeer and Leguizamo have fun playing snobby fools. And Ralph Fiennes is cast to perfection as the mad genius of a chef, whose madness has poisoned his genius to the point where we question if anyone is going to survive long enough to review the Hawthorn on Yelp.