There’s a famous line from the 1987 movie “Wall Street” said by actor Michael Douglas as the investment whiz Gordon Gekko that goes, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” Most people shorten it to “Greed…is good.” During Wall Street’s boom in the 1980’s, the Tech Bubble of the 1990’s, the subprime mortgage heyday of the early 2000’s and the explosion of profits by oil companies and giant retailers now, greed does appear to be a great way to get rich…in the short term. Remember, tech stocks and subprime mortgages both eventually tanked. And the go-go days of the 1980’s on Wall Street was slowed down by various scandals involving insider trading and other financial crimes. Eventually, as my mother used to say, the chickens come home to roost, meaning the good times must end, sometimes catastrophically. While a movie about an exclusive restaurant, it’s demanding chef and its upper crust clientele may sound like it has nothing to do with examples of corporate greed and corruption, “The Menu” will surprise you with just how many similarities there are.
Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) is the celebrity chef behind the ultra-exclusive restaurant Hawthorne, located on a small island miles from the mainland. Tickets to Hawthorne are $1250 per person. Being able to afford the ticket price doesn’t guarantee you’ll be invited to dine on the delicacies found on the island and in the waters around it. You must be deemed worthy by chef Slowik. On this night, Tyler (Nicolaus Hoult), a foodie fanboy of Slowik’s, is accompanied by his companion Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy). Influential food critic Lillian Bloom (Janet McTeer) and her editor Ted (Paul Adelstein) are on hand. Washed up actor George Diaz (John Leguizamo) is trying to kick-start his career with a food/travel show and is using this night as a test run. He’s joined by his much put-upon assistant Felicity (Aimee Carrero). A trio of tech bros, Soren, Brice and Dave (Arturo Castro, Rob Yang and Mark St. Cyr) that work for the “angel investor” that owns Hawthorne. There’s also a married couple, Richard and Anne Liebbrandt (Reed Birney and Judith Light), that have dined at Hawthorne many times. None of the guests know one another, although a couple of people recognize Diaz from his movie career, and Margot avoids eye contact with Mr. Liebbrandt. When the guests arrive at the island, the boat immediately pulls away. Each is greeted and checked in by Elsa (Hong Chau), Slowik’s maitre d’ and personal assistant. Elsa notices Margot is not Tyler’s originally listed guest. He clumsily explains his original date couldn’t attend so Margot is taking her place. This seems to trouble both Elsa and Slowik when she informs him of the change in plans. As each course is served, Slowik tells a story of how the food ties into a tale that will become clear as the night progresses, and each course has a name. For instance, one is called Memories. Slowik recounts how on a Taco Tuesday night when he was a child, he stopped his father from beating his mother by stabbing him in the thigh with a pair of scissors. The dish served is a chicken thigh stabbed with a small pair of scissors and laser etched tortillas. With much flourish, each course is served with military precision by the sous-chefs. With each course, Slowik becomes more interested in Margot, following her into the bathroom at one point and asking her questions about why she’s at Hawthorne. Margot dislikes Slowik’s style, his imperiousness, and his food. Slowik’s reasons for inviting these guests on this night becomes more and more clear as the food comes out, the wine is served, and secrets are revealed.
“The Menu” is a pitch-black satire of wealth, greed, consumerism and clickbait culture. Written by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, the film comes from an experience Tracy had on his honeymoon, dining at Cornelius Sjømatrestaurant in Norway. While I doubt Cornelius Sjømatrestaurant has as bloody a floorshow planned for its guests as Hawthorne did, it does look interesting, if you like seafood.
While everyone in the cast is great, the film lives or dies on the performances of Anya Taylor-Joy and Ralph Fiennes. Taylor-Joy’s Margot is hard as nails. She doesn’t put up with any foolishness and will stand up for herself even in the face of the imposing Slowik. Taylor-Joy is an interesting actress to watch, not just because she’s attractive in an unconventional way. There’s a warmth and childlike quality to her character, just under the hard exterior. She’s cunning, but only when necessary. She’s smart enough to know when to act dumb. She can be demure one moment and deadly the next. Some of this duality comes from Reiss and Tracy’s script, but the rest is innate to Anya Taylor-Joy’s skill as an actor.
Ralph Fiennes plays chef Slowik as a barely contained volcano. There’s enormous rage hiding just under the surface of the celebrity chef. Like where the crater is filled with water, making a beautiful lake, boiling under the surface is molten hot rage, waiting to explode. As that rage slowly leaks out, it opens the door allowing a flood of pent up anger and resentment to spill out over his kitchen and his guests. Some of Slowik’s anger is justified, while some if petty and trivial. Yet it all combines together into a toxic stew of revenge that to Slowik tastes like justice. Fiennes is clearly playing someone with mental illness that has convinced the sous-chefs his menu for the evening is justified and worthy of their efforts to the very end. It’s a performance that could earn Fiennes some awards season love.
“The Menu” is rated R for strong/disturbing violent content, language throughout and some sexual references. A finger is shown being cut off. A person is stabbed in the neck and bleeds out. A person is stabbed in the leg. There is a suicide by gun and a suicide by hanging. There is also a mass murder/suicide by fire. The sexual reference is a description of a sex act between a sex worker and client. Foul language is common but not overwhelming.
The world of high-end restaurants, spending thousands of dollars on tiny servings of food just to say you’ve dined at some celebrity chef’s newest monument to ego has never made any sense to me. Call me pedestrian, but I’d rather go to Cracker Barrel or an all-you-can-eat buffet and have big portions of food I can recognize and pronounce than someplace for “the experience.” If you agree, seeing “The Menu” won’t change your mind. Still, the film is a tasty bit of twisted fun that might make the perfect snack of entertainment.
“The Menu” gets five stars out of five.
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