“The Menu”

This film was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival

“The Menu” tells the story of a once-in-a-lifetime meal gone horribly wrong. Co-written by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy and directed by Mark Mylod, the film isn’t quite as smart or sophisticated as it thinks it is when it comes to attempts to skewer the wealthy and the haute cuisine scene. But there are some terrific laugh-out-loud moments of snarky brilliance, and the cast rises to the occasion with a savage glee.

Gastronome Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) has invited his date Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) to join him for a $1,250 per plate gourmet dinner at one of the world’s most exclusive restaurants. Located on a remote private island and led by head chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), this foodie paradise for billionaires and celebrities is strictly invitation-only, accessible to the chosen few.

Tonight there are eleven special guests that include a washed-up movie star (John Leguizamo) and his assistant / mistress (Aimee Carrero), a harsh restaurant critic (Janet McTeer) and her agreeable minion (Paul Adelstein), a group of three investment bros (Arturo Castro, Mark St. Cyr, Rob Yang), and a well-heeled couple (Judith Light and Reed Birney) that eat at this destination dining experience so often that they’re considered regulars. The lavish menu has been carefully crafted by the visionary chef and expertly prepared by his obedient staff, but there’s a malevolent theme to tonight’s dinner that is an unexpected exercise in masterful manipulation.

Reiss and Tracy’s script is filled with twists that are designed to shock the audience. The story glides through a variety of genres, from dark comedy to thriller and eventually, to horror, creating a cramped setting for a meal service that’s uncomfortably sinister. The action takes place in one room during one night in an open kitchen that’s filled with salivating, pretentious, rich elites just waiting to savor their next farm-to-table bite. Their refined palates and padded pocketbooks are no match for the nightmarish evening of guilt and carnage that awaits.

The story explores themes like class, privilege, childhood trauma, and the damage that a singular obsession can do to a person’s mental health. Chef’s story is probably the saddest, as he no longer finds joy in what was once his passion for simply cooking and creating delicious food. His only focus now is crafting a dish that reaches utter perfection, because that’s what his diners demand. His staff works with the precision of a culinary army, jumping into action with a simple hand clap. His devoted maitre d’ (Hong Chau) assures rigid adherence to the house rules.

All of the main characters are memorable and interesting. Margot isn’t the person she says she is, and Chef can see right through her. She’s the person you’ll be rooting for, especially when it’s clear she doesn’t belong. The movie star seems like the one diner who isn’t flat-out terrible, but there’s a running joke that he’s not liked because of his penchant for making terrible films. Particularly relatable is Tyler, a celebrity-obsessed foodie who is so laser-focused on every morsel and ingredient that is served that he is blind to the very real dangers staring him directly in the face. He’d gladly die if it meant he could consume one more bite from Chef Slowik’s kitchen.

It would be a crime not to mention the absolutely gorgeous food photography on display, with a parade of creative dishes spread out with a stunning artistry. The gourmet plates are a star in their own right because the first female chef in the United States to earn 3 Michelin stars, Dominque Crenn, was brought in at the film’s consulting chef. A bit of advice: don’t go to this film hungry.

The script is packed with dark comedy and sharp dialogue that’s peppered with wicked barbs and vicious sarcasm that’s aimed squarely at self-centered one-percenters. The upper class is an easy target, but the story does fizzle out towards its third act.

A great deal of the film encourages the idea of savoring and tasting every nuance in a plate of food, but the final message is of the “just shut up and eat” variety. The disappointing ending falls short of the devilish deliciousness that comes before, and the premise is ridiculous once you start to look closer at the guests and their motivations. But “The Menu” is a genre-blending thriller that provides arthouse fun for foodies.

By: Louisa Moore

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