There’s extreme intensity to The Menu even before Ralph Fiennes’ delectably unhinged Chef Slowik first twists his kitchen timer into motion. Said timer relentlessly ticks as things ramp up further still. On and on it goes. Just there. Right at the back of Todd Weaver’s intricately mixed soundscape. Around it, this a banquet of a film. One best enjoyed as blind as can be achieved. The more known the less flavoursome. Even within the confines of the film’s runtime, such is true. While a fiendishly appetising starter gives way to a reasonably unsavoury main, the desert threatens to leave diners wanting, the sweet taste of vengeance not quite scored.
Somewhat predictably, owing to the relation of The Menu’s creative team with that of Jesse Armstrong’s HBO hit Succession, it is the privilege and pomposity of wealth that meets a skewering here. What begins as a deliciously close to the bone mockery of ultra fine dining soon morphs into a venomous attack on the entitled 1% who buy into its world. It’s a very deliberate shift of slighting and one critical in to narrative flow of Seth Reiss and Will Tracy’s script. To this end, the film, as directed by Mark Mylod, flies rather on the nose. Perhaps there’s ironic intention here. A pauper’s jibe in a princely dressing.
Amid an crowd of caricatures – foodies, frauds, patrons and the like – only Anya Taylor-Joy’s Margot offers some semblance of sanity. She enters on the arm of Nicholas Hoult’s Tyler, an increasingly abhorrent sycophant but mere pawn in congregation of zealotry that surrounds Fiennes’ Slowik. His is a messianic presence over a set up very deliberately dripping in religious recourse. Certainly, it is no coincidence that Slowik’s guest list totals twelve, while the second of his seven courses is an inspired bread-less bread platter. Bread, he explains, is for the common man. These are not common men. Symbolism aside, it’s very believable hokum.
Of the other guests, Janet McTeer stands out as food critic Lillian. Even as things turn south, her commitment to the sanctimony of art is gloriously laughable. ‘I honestly think this whole thing is for our benefit,’ she tells Paul Adelstein’s Ted, her editor. There’s blistering truth too in the self-confidence of John Leguizamo’s unnamed has been movie star, clinging to relevance but invited off the back of a particularly risible piece of shlock.
Others prove less memorable. A faceless trio of young business suits, Slowik’s alcoholic mother and a wealthy couple, there representing old money and ripe for bringing down a peg or two. It’s hard for these peripheral sorts to resonate in a field so spikily dominated by the repartee of Fiennes and Taylor-Joy. Sparks fly.
Equally impressive is the discipline of Mylod’s direction. His is a production founded on staccato rhythms. A dance of many interplays, at once funny, vicious, deliciously uncomfortable and often, certainly early on, terrifying. If the devices at play aren’t so breathtakingly original as the conceit itself, the deployment remains skilful. Such does rather blunt once boiling point is achieved and bubbling tensions steam. When one jaded sous chef remarks the need for conceptualism to hold things together, she gripes: ‘otherwise it just tastes good and what’s the point?’ The Menu might not conceptually hold together but does well to prove that tasting this good can be point enough.