I haven’t been lucky enough to manage a seat at Alinea, Chicago’s only three-star Michelin restaurant, but friends who’ve been still talk about the experience years later. They remember the creative plating, the inventive courses, the tastes and textures unlike any other restaurant can create. And it’s true, there are people who live for this stuff, whose entire personalities are built around their love of celebrity chefs and once-in-a-lifetime dining experiences (sort of like movie people, maybe). This world of elite chefs and their groupies is the jumping-off point for The Menu, directed by Mark Mylod (most recently at the helm of “Succession”) and co-written by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy (who’s penned more than a few episodes of “Succession”), as an eclectic group of patrons heads to an isolated island for the chance to dine at the most revered restaurant in the world.
From the outset, The Menu‘s satiric vibes are strong, from the caricatures of the ensemble cast to the over-the-top lengths they go to for the evening’s affairs. There’s Nicholas Hoult’s Tyler, a fanboy who’s been waiting for this moment for literal years, and his date, Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), who’s as unimpressed with the proceedings as he is salivating over every moment. There’s restaurant critic Lillian (Janet McTeer, “The Ozarks”) and her lackey, Ted (Paul Adelstein), feeling like the only ones in the room who truly deserve to be there. There’s a movie star (John Leguizamo) and his assistant (Aimee Carrero); a wealthy older couple who are returning customers (Judith Light and Reed Birney); and a small group of finance bros (Rob Yang, Arturo Castro and Mark St. Cyr) very used to being able to buy their way into anything.
On the other side of the equation is the man everyone has traveled to meet and worship, Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), and his militant and no-nonsense staff led by host and concierge Elsa (Hong Chau). Together, these two run a tight ship and expect their guests to do as they’re told and enjoy every minute of it. There’s absolutely nothing nuanced about any of these characters, and as the evening progresses, there will be no need to wonder about any of their motivations, because Reiss and Tracy’s script will spell it out for us down to the ingredient. Collectively, the cast is beautiful and talented, and they commit to the bit, their terror growing as Chef Slowik’s menacing intentions become clear. As the film navigates through courses (on-screen interludes introduce each in often clever, cheeky ways), the intensity also grows, with Mylod finding creative ways to move us both around the dining room and beyond it.
Individually, these moments are plenty of fun; it’s cathartic to see these jerks get their due, and the fact that the script is willing to take the payback to the extreme is what we come to the movies for, after all. If a film’s not willing to go there, why are we here at all? The problem, then, is that The Menu is so excited to go wherever it’s going…it forgets entirely to actually get there. For as much fun as the filmmakers and cast are having tearing down the industrio-dining complex and all the entitlement it engenders, they don’t seem to have much more of a point than, “Haha, lame, huh?” Sort of like the pretentious establishments it’s skewering, The Menu offers more style than substance, and you might have to stop for burgers on the drive home.
The Menu is now in theaters.