“The Menu”: Razor-sharp Satire Skewers Haute Cuisine

Full disclosure: I’m not much of a “foodie.” You’ll never find me perusing the Michelin guide to see how many stars a restaurant has earned – in fact, you’ll likely never find me in a restaurant that has earned a Michelin star or two. Fine dining for me is a tasty meal at a reasonable price, be it a cheeseburger with fries or a plate of pasta carbonara. I don’t take pictures of my meals either, to post online for others to comment upon. If they look good, I eat them.

That might explain why I enjoyed The Menu (R) so much. This is a razor-sharp, deliciously demented satire that skewers haute cuisine and the kind of people who pay thousands of dollars to dine at an exclusive restaurant, just to be served pretentious courses that have “mouth feel” and “tell a story” for the palate – an exclusive restaurant like The Hawthorne, for example, which is the setting for this story. 

Inspired by an actual eatery off the coast of Norway, The Hawthorne sits like a Bond villain’s fortress on its own island and serves only a dozen diners an evening. A ferry transports the fortunate few, personally selected by the staff from a plethora of eager applicants, to sample executive chef Julian Slowik’s latest culinary creations, rigorously prepared by his squad of sous chefs whose devotion to their boss’s “artistry” is disturbingly all consuming.

English actor Ralph Fiennes plays Slowik, and I can’t think of a better actor for this role, in the same way that I can’t imagine a better Hannibal Lecter than Sir Anthony Hopkins. Fiennes always exudes an icy, sometimes menacing calm, even in a romantic comedy, so putting him in a chef’s tunic and letting him explain the inspiration for the fiendish courses he has concocted for his customers this fateful evening is especially inspired casting.

The patrons who willingly walk through the industrial-sized door of the restaurant like lambs to the slaughter are a mixed bag of the insanely wealthy and celebrated – the kind of crowd that Dame Agatha Christie might have assembled for a weekend retreat of mayhem and murder. 

Among them is food critic Lillian Bloom (Janet McTeer), who makes sure everyone knows that she “discovered” Slowik; her sycophantic editor, Ted (Paul Adelstein); fading movie star George Diaz (John Leguizamo), who harbors desperate hopes of creating a second act for himself as the host of a Food Network–style show; his duplicitous assistant, Felicity (Aimee Carrero); a table of techies who work for Slowik’s newest business partner and patron, a ruthless financier who bought the island out from under him and is there to check out the company’s newest acquisition and get drunk on excess; and lastly, foodie fanboy Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) and his hired date for the evening, Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy). Tyler is an insufferable snob who measures status by the cost of the entrée and the size of the bill, and Margot – well, she’s a bit of a mystery who piques Slowik’s interest because she does the unthinkable by saying, “No, thank you” to his food.

What happens during the course of the meal is, by turns, wickedly funny (as when the diners are served a bread basket without any bread and rave about the genius of such a dish) and shockingly bizarre (wait until you see what’s for dessert), with all the tropes and trimmings of a horror movie, served up with style and pizzazz. 

Kudos, of course, go to the ensemble cast, who play things straight without getting sloppy; and to writers Seth Reiss and Will Tracy for setting the table with their original screenplay. But the lion’s share of credit must go to director Mark Mylod, whose career has been spent mostly in television after a lackluster start in movies. He maintains a firm control over this material from start to finish, delivering finely crafted entertainment that’s as nasty as it is tasty.

The Menu is currently playing only in theaters. If you’re curious but willing to wait, expect to find it streaming on HBO or Hulu sometime after Christmas.

In another lifetime, Mike Orlock wrote film reviews for The Reporter/Progress newspapers in the western suburbs of Chicago. He has also taught high school English, coached basketball and authored three books of poetry. He currently serves as Door County’s poet laureate.