A savory horror film for the foodie crowd, “The Menu” stars Ralph Fiennes in Voldemort mode as star chef Julian Slowik who brings new meaning to the term “Hell’s Kitchen.” His restaurant, Hawthorn, located on a remote island, is a magical dining experience specializing in Gastronomic cuisine. The guests for tonight’s special dinner include a fanboy (Nicholas Hoult) and his mysterious date (Anya Taylor-Joy), a has-been movie star (John Leguizamo), a snooty food critic (Janet McTeer), and a couple of wealthy regulars (Reed Birney and Judith Light) willing to pay $1,250 a plate. Mark Mylod’s dark comedy serves up “Tales from the Crypt” vibes as the spotlight shifts from the food to the guests, leaving the audience appreciating the value of ordering delivery.
We first meet good-looking couple Tyler (Hoult) and his date Margo (Taylor-Joy), in line waiting for the ferry to usher them to the exclusive restaurant Hawthorn, the brainchild of celebrity chef Julian Slowik (Fiennes), located on a Pacific Northwest Island where diners feast on culinary delights harvested from the island’s ecosystem including scallops served on native boulders with barely frozen sea water and aquatic vegetation. As food critic Lillian Bloom (McTeer) puts it, “We’re eating the ocean.”
You can thank Dominique Crenn, the first female chef in the US to be awarded three Michelin stars and owner of San Francisco restaurant Atelier Crenn, for creating the dishes served in the film, which get more decadent (and ridiculous) with each new course. Wait until you see what’s planned for dessert.
A very good Hong Chau plays Elsa, the deadpan hostess and second in charge who greets all the guests as they arrive on the island. She notices immediately that Margo is not on the guest list. It seems Tyler made a last-minute date substitution. It doesn’t set well with Elsa nor Chef Slowik who later confronts the bewitching Margo in private, “You shouldn’t be here tonight.”
Apart from the diners already mentioned, the guest list is rounded out by Felicity (Aimee Carrero), the assistant to Leguizamo’s washed-up movie star character Diego Garcia, Paul Adelstein as Ted, the editor, and assistant to McTeer’s food critic Lillian Bloom, a group of wealthy business investors (Rob Yang, Arturo Castro, Mark St. Cyr), and Rebecca Koon as Linda, an elderly lady dining solo and getting wasted on wine. The cast is fantastic.
As the diners enter Hawthorn through a massive pivoting wall, a cold uninviting exterior, they discover a beautiful contrasting interior partially lit by a glowing fireplace that seems to go on forever thanks to the huge glass windows that give diners an excellent view of the beach. The open kitchen design gives patrons an excellent view of the staff as they prepare each course while Chef Slowik broods in the background. A bit of Hell’s Kitchen? Yes, except the diners are the ones getting rebuked, not the staff. Production designer Ethan Tobman built the restaurant from scratch incorporating elements of world-famous eateries including El Bulli, Sweden’s Fäviken, and Noma.
“Over the next few hours, you will ingest fat, salt, protein, and at times, entire ecosystems,” remarks Chef Slowik before the barrage of courses that include a breadless bread plate (dipping sauces only), roasted chicken thighs with scissors embedded, and tortillas with images on them, specific to each guest. For example, Lillian Bloom’s tortilla features a list of restaurants that closed after she gave them bad reviews. Here come the “Tales from the Crypt” vibes.
The exquisitely prepared and often foamy dishes lose the spotlight as the evening’s unannounced entertainment takes precedence beginning with Chef Slowik’s introduction of the fourth course, titled “The Mess” based on the life of his sous-chef Jeremy. As the chef berates Jeremy in front of the diners, a shocking event occurs that leaves the patrons scrambling for the door. Of course, they’re trapped and if you’ve seen the trailer, you know what happens next.
“The Menu” is very funny as the satire pokes fun at foodie culture and Gastronomic cuisine. The film’s first half moves at a casual pace giving the audience time to begin assembling the pieces of the puzzle. At the halfway point, Mylod shifts the focus from comedy to horror and that’s when “The Menu” gets cooking. The wonderful ensemble cast fades into the background as Anya Taylor-Joy and Ralph Fiennes become the focus of the film. Margo and Chef Slowik appear to bond but you’re never sure if they are just playing each other.
Inspired by Norway’s Cornelius Seafood Restaurant situated on a small island, the story by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy never takes itself too seriously. It’s the perfect blend of satire and horror. It’s great seeing veteran actors Reed Birney, Judith Light, and John Leguizamo alongside rising stars Rob Yang from “Succession” and Mark St. Cyr from “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” on Disney Plus. Anya Taylor-Joy who made her debut in Robert Eggers’s “The Witch” just seven years ago continues to embrace her dark side, perfectly cast opposite Ralph Fiennes who seems to be having the most fun in a villainous role since inflicting the Cruciatus Curse on the world’s favorite boy wizard.
(3 ½ stars)
Now showing in theaters